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They swoop into downtown around sundown, filling the air with their guttural calls before settling in for a night of mischief.

By the time they take off after dawn, the downtown is covered with evidence of their insatiable appetites and gregarious nature. Small twigs stripped from trees litter the ground. Sidewalks, cars and awnings are splattered with their droppings.

Hundreds of crows that have been frequenting downtown Billings are driving property owners crazy. So far, efforts to control the noisy birds have met with only mixed success.

“It’s right out of Hitchcock,” Bruce Simon said, referring to “The Birds,” the 1963 horror film in which birds launch an all-out assault on humans.

Simon’s building, at North 29th Street and Second Avenue North, has been splattered with crow droppings in recent weeks. Plastic owls hung in trees and from the buildings didn’t do any good, but the crows stayed away after Simon began harassing them with firecrackers.

“Loud noises seem to work better than anything else,” Simon said. “We’re probably just moving them around.”

“They wise up pretty fast on the plastic owls. It works for a few hours and then they’re back,” said Bruce Lee, who owns the Hedden Empire building, also on North 29th.

“When the crows are bad, every person who comes in here has a comment about them,” said Pat Ritter, owner of Cactus Rose, 202 N. 29th St. “When it gets warm, the stink is pretty bad.”

Shelly Mrachek, director of Community Daycare, 310 N. 27th St., said staff members keep a close eye on the young children to make sure that they don’t pick up any crow droppings while playing outdoors.

“There had to be a couple hundred crows here in the trees when we came in the other morning,” Mrachek said Thursday. Volunteers from First Congregational Church are planning to clean up crow droppings at the church and adjoining day-care center on Saturday morning.

City Administrator Dennis Taylor said controlling the downtown crow problem requires a comprehensive effort that includes limiting food sources, cleaning up after the birds and trying to chase them away.

“This is a vexing problem, something that we’re trying to work on in a coordinated and effective way,” Taylor said.

Since crows eat just about anything, one way to keep them away is to limit their access to garbage and pet food, Taylor said.

Billings Public Works Director Dave Mumford said plans are under way to hire a contractor to wash down buildings and sidewalks and then have a street sweeper clean up the streets.

“The last thing we’ll do is use some hoses and pyrotechnics and try to harass them out of their roosting areas and back toward the river where they usually roost,” Mumford said.

As bad as the crow problem is, shooting them is not an option. Bill Pryor, information officer for the Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks, said crows and most other bird species are protected under federal law.

In December, during the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count, 816 crows were counted in the Billings area.

Nobody is certain why the crow population has been on the upswing, although wildlife experts have guessed that mild winters and the availability of food could be responsible.

Tom Howard can be reached at 657-1261 or at thoward@billingsgazette.com

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