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Crows face unnatural deselecting

By Ann Baldelli

Publication: The Day

Published February 21. 2010 4:00AM

It's a real conundrum.Should the government systematically slaughter highly intelligent but plentiful crows to preserve endangered and delicate piping plovers on the Cape Cod National Seashore?

That's just what seashore and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are suggesting for two Cape beaches this summer. During the piping plover's reproductive season, the biologists want to lace hard-boiled chicken eggs with poison and arrange them in fake plover nests. The idea is to teach the hungry crows a lesson.

The experts reason that the smart crows - the Massachusetts Audubon Society's own Web page describes crows as among the most intelligent of all birds and reports it is believed they can actually count - will quickly catch on that feasting on plover is a deadly mistake.

They're cutting no corners in setting up their trap. The federal biologists working on the project plan to set off the areas with the fake nests and poisoned eggs with the same snow-fencing typically used to keep other predators away. The crows have figured out that where there is snow-fencing there is likely plover, so snow-fencing will be part of the bait.

As an endangered species under federal and state laws, piping plovers deserve protection. Intensive development and recreation along the shoreline from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas, places where plovers once thrived, has led to their decline. Forced out of once-safe nesting spots, plovers are vulnerable now to predators like dogs, cats, rats, raccoons, skunks, and humans. Just recently, the local Avalonia Land Conservancy announced its plans to collaborate with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect the Sandy Point nature preserve in Little Narragansett Bay, in large measure to help the struggling plovers.

Some coastal locations are entirely off limits to humans and vehicles to protect plovers, including beaches and coastal trails in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

But does the endangered status of one species provide a license to kill another? Of course, when it comes to crows, a license to kill is unnecessary.

Crow hunting is legal in many places, including Connecticut and Massachusetts. In fact, in the Bay State the Cape Cod Times recently reported that every January the Nantucket Hunting Association holds its annual crow hunt.

Armed with shotguns, teams of hunters set out across the island for two days, gunning for crow. The team with the most black tails in the end, wins. The 2010 winners took out 51 crows.

This makes me wonder why the biologists aren't protecting the crows as well as the plovers.

The reason has everything to do with numbers. Crows are plentiful. And they are big and loud. In the evenings, they mob or roost in communal groups, sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even thousands, which annoys and frightens some humans. (Remember Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds"?)

Despite a setback with West Nile virus, crows are on the rebound. They are evolutionary survivors, thriving in a modern, developed world. But for this, they do not get the same respect as some other birds. They're expendable, which doesn't seem fair.

One ornithological publication assessing the intelligence of crows concluded these birds can compute basic math. Hunters, it explained, have reported that crows "count" the number of hunters entering a blind and avoid the blind until they've "counted" the same number of gun-toters retreating.

That's ingenious. And so is the alternative idea of a biologist who opposes poisoning the Cape Cod crows. He's suggested using a vomit-inducing tonic in the fake eggs rather than the lethal one. Let the crows get sick, but don't kill them.

It's worth a try. If crows are as smart as they appear, they'll figure out fast enough that plover egg isn't good eating.

Ann Baldelli is associate editorial page editor.

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