Crows roosting along Dillerville Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Photo: Intelligencer Journal/Lancaster New Era

Culture

How to Stop a Murder of Crows (Hint: Throw Them a Giant Party)

This Pennsylvania town wanted to poison all its crows—until a ragtag team of volunteers stepped in.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has a history with birds. Not only is it the birthplace of Peeps (those deformed-looking marshmallow chicks that rock the shelves every Easter), it’s also unofficially known as the city of crows. Every winter, up to 30,000 American Crows invade Lancaster's treetops, parking lots, and businesses, unleashing a cacophony of caws and sheets of slick, white droppings. Their descent used to spark ire among locals, but these days it kicks off a months-long celebration—purely in honor of the once-defamed birds.

Crows have migrated to Lancaster for generations, flying south from Canada and New England each year to escape the frigid winter weather. Even as urban sprawl took over their typical forest and field homes, they settled into the new suburban jungle without pause. That is until 2005 when their stay was met by a growing mob of angry residents and officials, who argued that the birds were devastating farms, rooftops, and overall town aesthetics. Pretty soon, a mass poisoning campaign was under way to beat back the swarms.  

With no sign of a truce in sight, a small group of crow enthusiasts decided to band together and find an alternative to the poison. Spearheaded by Laurie Ulrich, a town resident and ardent bird lover, the Lancaster County Crow Coalition began testing out pyrotechnics on the birds—starter pistols, screamers, and even the occasional dead crow effigy. Between these terrifying sounds, the group was able to get the flocks to move into greener, more bird-friendly patches on the outskirts of town. It worked—the following year Lancaster city officials accounced an end to the extermination. 

In the decade since, things have really changed in Lancaster: The town now plays host to a massive months-long crow-themed party, aptly named Something to Crow About. Now in its second year, the festival features a lineup of events that stretch between the months of January and February. From crow-themed art shows to a “Blackbird Ball and Masquerade” (free entry into the nightclub if you wear a crow mask), locals are cawing a different tune as crows settle in for the winter. Even restaurants have started to join in the festivities by showcasing creative crow-inspired dishes—everything from blackbird crepes to crazy crow gyros to crow-quettes.

Some parts of the festival are specially tailored for young audiences. The North Museum in Lancaster hosts a family-friendly night to highlight their crow and raven exhibits, allowing kids to post paper crows on its walls in homage to the birds’ migration. And next year, Something to Crow About is rolling out a play (written by one 'Edgar Allan Crow') about an angsty teenage corvid trying to find his place in the world.

Winner of "Best in Crow" at Lancaster's "All-Crow" art show—one of the many events in the town's winter crow celebration. Illustration: Deborah Diana

Though the campaign hasn’t turned everyone into a crow advocate (yet), Dave Strange, an event coordinator for Something to Crow About, is optimistic that it's helping to change the birds' bad rap. “This is a small thing we’re doing,” he says, “but the more people learn about them, the more they’ll realize how important crows have been throughout our history.” "Crows are kind of badass,” Ulrich adds, and in Lancaster, they’re proving to be a resilient and forgiving mascot.

The crows will begin their trip back north starting mid-February, but not without a proper adieu: a “Farewell to Crows” party, complete with a raffle, art show, writing contest, awards, snacks, and drinks. In a few months, the large roosts will be all but gone. Yet for now, their caws and chatter can still be heard back in Lancaster—a place they love, and a place that is slowly learning to love them back.  

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