Saturday, 29 December 2018

Killing Crows in the Karoo

This is the original text of an article published in African BirdLife magazine (Lee, A.T.K. 2018 Killing Crows. African BirdLife. Nov/Dec: 13-14).  The published article text is slightly different, and I use this opportunity to showcase several illustrative photos that were not published.

“What do you think of the crow problem?”, asks the owner of the Williston Mall. “There never used to be this many crows”, says the wife of a farmer east of Loeriesfontein. “I hope you’re here to do something about the crows. There are millions of them along the train line”, says a famer east of Kenhardt on seeing the BirdLife SA logo on the bakkie. Almost everywhere we’ve gone crows have been a topic of conversation with the landowners and residents of the Karoo on the subject of birds. In a few cases Pied Crow are indicated to be useful: they show where jackal or rooikat have taken a lamb. But in most cases, “Ek haat n kraai” is not an uncommon thing to be heard said by anyone in the sheep industry. After all, you’re an easy target to hate if you’re pecking the eyes out of a new born lamb. Reminiscent of the albatrosses on Marion Island, I was told one story of the skin pecked quite clean off the head of a lamb. The lamb was still alive.

Starting the survey of the birds of the Karoo, a pet project of mine had been to ask, “what is your favourite bird?”. The answers were diverse, indicating that the beauty of birds lies in their diversity: there are as many ways to please as there are birds. Unpopular birds included noisy birds: hadedas, Egyptian geese and even Black Korhaan, or damaging birds e.g. weavers. But the answer for roughly ¾ of the question relating to problem birds was “Witborskraai” i.e. Pied Crow.

It is rather unsurprising that crows are on the rise: we’ve done everything to make conditions great for them: we’ve built them predator inaccessible nesting structures in the form of telephone poles and pylons; we provide a steady source of food in the form of roadkill and rubbish dumps; and we’re changing the climate just the way they like it. It’s not just John Fincham that’s noted the collateral damage to other biodiversity: one farmer on the road to Pofadder had collected a jar of tortoise shells that he attributed as victims to Pied Crow. Several other people we spoke to have wondered about the decline in raptors and other bird species that could be attributed to Pied Crow taking eggs and chicks. Harassing of raptors is frequently reported. However, the impacts on biodiversity have yet to be properly established.

While Pied Crow make every pentad list in the Karoo, our initial density estimates indicate that their actual density in terms of birds per square kilometre is not particularly high i.e. their high detectability because of their size, colour, calls and habits gives a false impression of high abundance. A murder of crows associated with a rubbish dump or roadkill can make quite an impression. But perhaps there is already a solution to the ‘crow problem’ unfolding, in the Karoo at least, because: “n Boer maak n plan”.

Pied Crows are one of the species on the long list of ‘pest’ animals considered legitimate targets for reducing stock damage. Farmers were quite open in their methods for crow control. There is hardly a farmer out there that can’t handle a gun, so it’s rare to see a perched or relaxed crow near any farmstead: they have quickly learnt that humans equal danger in the form of a deadly bang. Given the collapse of Telkom infrastructure in the Karoo, they also increasingly make their nests on windmills, where it is easy to destroy nests or toss out the eggs. And while illegal, the use of poison was frequently mentioned, with poison applied to eggs, lambs’ tails, other birds caught for the purpose, or even livestock carcasses where jackal and caracal are also intended targets. The unintentional bycatch from this control methods is, of course, horrific: any of the scavenging raptors, mongoose and meerkats have been reported as collateral damage from such activities.

Pied Crow are an ugly manifestation of a changing world, a symptom of the human impact on the planet. Condoning the control of crows is controversial and likely unsustainable in the long term, but if we take care of the issues that led to their increase in the first place, then that solution is sustainable and can let us rest easy. It may be wishful thinking to restore a natural order of things: bringing back vultures to take care of carrion and capping carbon emissions, but if you don’t like crows, that is where your energy should be spent. The collapse of Telkom infrastructure in the Karoo providing easy nesting sites is already well underway. And in the meantime, if you’re not a fan of crows, you’ll look the other way when men are heading into the veld dressed in their battle kit. There are already hundreds of people murdering crows!

In a role reversal, here a Greater Kestrel harasses a Pied Crow: these species compete for nesting space on windmills.

Pied Crow eggs from a nest on a windmill


An old crow nest dangles on the last telephone pole in this Karoo landscape. Abandoned by Telkom, most telephone poles have been used by farmers for construction purposes, so these no longer provide safe or reliable nesting locations.

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