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Pa.'s turf war with the world's smartest birds

Plus, a pre-election moment of zen.


November 4, 2022
Inside this edition: Fair-weather fan, deep breaths, City of God, meet cute, The Dollop, and the war on crows is coming to town. Hi! Thanks for checking in.
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I am on the Philadelphia Phillies bandwagon. Fair-weather fans unite. 

With that in mind, a question: Who called Phillies fans "the most virulent, obnoxious fans in the world" this week? 

A. President Joe Biden
B. Houston's "Mattress Mack
C. Alec "I hate this place" Bohm
D. Fired Phillies coach Joe Girardi 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

» One thing worth knowing: Next week is Election Week. I repeat, next week is Election Week. Here is your pre-election moment of zen.

» One thing worth sharing: Jon Meyer of WNEP makes some of the most serene CBS Sunday Morning-style dispatches for his "On the Pennsylvania Road" segment. Here's one on Pennsylvania's Lost City of God.

» One thing worth doing: The prodigal child returns with Taylor Swift coming back to Pennsylvania for several concerts on her Eras tour.

» One thing worth reading: If there's room for another How I Met Your Mother reboot, may I suggest one based on this epic meet cute by two Phillies fans after the team's pennant win, via Wapo (paywall).

» One thing worth watching: The Dollop podcast looks at former Pittsburgh Mayor William McNair, whose testy style earned him enemies all the way to the White House before his unprecedented resignation.

This week, we're kicking off our biggest challenge in Spotlight PA history — and we're asking our loyal PA Local readers to step up!

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» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» High court says undated ballots should not be tallied Nov. 8
» Why are undated mail ballots such a big deal in Pa.?
» Wolf signs hastily passed $2 billion tax package into law
» Dems bet on abortion rights as they seek control of Pa. House
» Missing data undercut bias study of Pa. State Police
» Will history repeat for Penn State's new president?
» Orchestra spent $15K on Pa. lawmakers' Europe trip
» Penn State cancels planned Center for Racial Justice

🗳 Spotlight PA's 2022 election coverage:

Read our complete coverage, plus key dates, campaign finance data, sample ballots & more at our Election Center 2022 website.

Spotlight on the Issues: Where Mastriano and Shapiro stand on...

»  Abortion, Medicaid, & Opioids
»  College Funding & Student Debt
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More issue analyses will be published in the coming weeks. 

A complete listing of Spotlight PA voter guides:  

»  A last-minute guide to the Nov. 8 election
»  Your complete guide to voting in the Nov. 8 election
»  Everything you need to know about mail ballots
»  Your complete guide to the candidates for governor
»  How to vet the candidates on your midterm ballot
»  No constitutional amendments on the ballot, but big ones loom
»  How to serve as a poll worker on Nov. 8
»  These Pa. voters haven't missed a Nov. election for 50+ years
»  How Spotlight PA will cover Pennsylvania's 2022 election

En Español:

»  Una guía básica para investigar a los candidatos
»  Cómo trabajar como trabajador electoral el 8 de noviembre
»  Todo lo que necesita saber para votar por correo
»  Su guía completa de los candidatos a gobernador
»  Una guía completa para las elecciones del 8 de noviembre

Support Spotlight PA's vital election coverage by making a gift now.
(Jim & Robin / Flickr)

And so it begins.

For the next few weeks, government buildings and college campuses in Pennsylvania will use sound effects, lasers, and controlled explosions to wage a strange, almost hallucinatory war against wintering crows — like a psyops version of those spikes you find under bridges.

Pennsylvania Capitol Police announced this week that they'll be discharging exploding shells and whistling devices to deter the brainy birds from roosting at the complex, a dispersal program now in its 25th year. 

The goal isn’t to hurt them but to annoy them so much they refuse to stick around.

Pitt has recently turned to holiday laser lights and audio recordings of the crow’s natural predators, while Penn State has used fireworks — aka “bird bangers” — in a targeted campaign plainly described by the school’s Office of Physical Plant as “periodic crow harassment.” 

It’s like Noriega’s last stand, only with less Axl Rose.

There are other tools in the box: California University in Washington County used a grape-scented chemical fog as a deterrent, and New York’s Cortland County did the same

The reason for all of this is perhaps best summed up by this intro from a 2017 article that ran in Pitt’s student newspaper, The Pitt News

As junior Virginia Lefever walked out of her Vertebrate Morphology lab in Langley Hall on a Tuesday night last semester, she heard what sounded like the onset of a minor rainstorm.

But it wasn’t raindrops plunking onto the pavement. It was crow feces.

“My friends and I liked to joke about needing an umbrella around campus. That’s what you have to do to get through [the crows],” Lefever, a biology and political science major, said.

Kate St. John, a bird expert and author of the Outside My Window blog, told The Incline that as migrating crows land in Pennsylvania from colder locales up north, they (and it) add up quickly. 

“When you’ve got 10,000 pooping crows in the trees around the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Memorial Chapel, it doesn’t smell good, and it’s slippery when wet, and by the end of December, they have a real issue,” St. John explained.

Heinz Chapel Director Pat Gibbons expanded on this to City Paper in 2016, saying, “I didn’t want to have to be the one to have to deal with a bride whose dress had been dipped in it.” 

So around this time each year, places like Pitt begin to roll out a Home Alone-worthy gauntlet of obstacles, figuring “audio scarecrows” and “bird bangers” will keep them from becoming an open air toilet for some of the smartest birds on the planet. Fair enough. 

But the crows are on to them. 

A 2002 study found lasers to be effective but extremely short-lived: “... there was no lasting effect as crows returned in most cases within a few minutes and reoccupied the roosts. No roost was abandoned for even one night, nor did crow numbers decrease at the treated roosts.”

At Pitt, the predator soundtrack worked in 2013, but by 2017 the birds were shrugging.

“The crows have moved — but only across the street,” Michelle Kienholz told the Outside My Window blog. “They’ve already figured out the scarecrow. It’s annoyingly loud but not scary.”

(For what it’s worth, angry farmers in Cayuga County, New York, tried to blow up thousands of sleeping crows with 500 shrapnel bombs in 1949 and “missed ‘em all,” per Syracuse.com.) 

The New York Times wrote in 2019 that crows and humans have shared space for tens of thousands of years, “and in all likelihood, we’ve been trying to chase them away just as long.”

The article, titled “How to Scare a Crow,” goes on to suggest faking deaths (“crows will avoid areas where comrades were killed”), undulating inflatable air dancers, motion sensors, and more.

Alternatively, source John Marzluff, a professor of forest sciences at the University of Washington, said, consider leaving them alone: 

Many birds can’t live in the urban and suburban spaces we build, but crows are remarkably adaptable to human-made landscapes. “We should celebrate and value these species that are able to survive with us,” Marzluff says. “If we don’t, it’s going to be a pretty lonely existence.”

That’s unlikely to happen at Pennsylvania’s soiled public universities or Capitol building, and their deterrents are unlikely to move the birds from warm roosts and easy food sources for long. “To scare a crow, you need variability and unpredictability,” Marzluff added.

The point being, tactics will evolve and this war — overlapping with Pennsylvania's ongoing War on Bugs — may be forever.

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor

The Susquehanna River near Wyalusing, via Scott G. But first... send us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.

The answer is A.

President Joe Biden called Phillies fans "the most virulent, obnoxious fans in the world" during a campaign stop in Florida this week. 

The AP reports the president had his wife, First Lady Jill Biden, a noted Phillies fanatic, in mind when he made the statement: 

The president often kids about his wife being “a Philly girl” and her rooting interests in the local teams.

"Like every Philly fan, she’s convinced she knows more about everything in sports than anybody else,” Biden joked in September when he hosted the 2021 World Series champion Atlanta Braves.

Biden added Tuesday, however, that if he didn’t root for Philadelphia teams he’d be sleeping alone.

Thanks for reading PA Local! We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

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