BY MARY WICOFF
Is Vermilion County’s reputation as a top crow capital threatened? During the Audubon Christmas Bird Count last month, volunteers counted “only” 121,500 crows — almost half the number recorded a few years ago. At one time, the population was more than 250,000.
“We were always No. 1 in the state for crows,” said Mary Jane Easterday, one of the counters.
She and another volunteer spent five consecutive days in December counting the crows as they left their roost at Stony Creek near Bunge Milling. Some of the birds left before dawn and the others at first light, and didn’t return until late afternoon. They search for food during the day in the fields and around Dumpsters.
Steve Bailey, biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey in Champaign, said, “We’ve had the highest count of crows in the United States on the Christmas count.” Even after the West Nile virus hit birds a few years ago, the county still had one of the largest roosts.
Bailey, a former Danville resident who now lives in Mundelein, participated in the Middlefork circle during the Christmas count. He started that Middlefork count in 1984. The other group of counters was called the Forest Glen circle.
Each group contained about 15 volunteers and covered an area 15 miles in diameter. The Forest Glen group counted 61 species and the Middlefork circle counted 77 species of birds.
Both groups noticed a decrease in crow numbers.
Easterday and Bailey both suggested the drought last year might account for the decrease. If there’s not much in the fields and the plants don’t have as many berries, birds might go south to find food. Or perhaps the West Nile virus has affected the numbers. The virus is spread easily among birds that roost closely together.
“We don’t know if they took a big hit last year,” Bailey said.
The smaller perching birds, such as cardinals and bluejays, also showed a decrease across the state, he said, possibly because of the drought.
Either the birds died or have gone further south.
Vermilion County’s crows, by the way, are just visitors from northern states.
“This is their Florida,” Easterday said. They roost near Bunge as it’s the lowest place in Danville, which means it’s warmer, and they’re protected from predators and people.
Bailey said a bird researcher with the Survey put radio transmitters on crows from this area, and he was surprised to trace them all the way to northern Michigan.
While many residents consider the big birds a nuisance, Marilyn Campbell tells people: “Get used to them. You’re not going to chase them off.”
Campbell, editor of the Illinois Audubon magazine and secretary of the local Middlefork Chapter of the Audubon Society, said crows and ravens are among the brightest birds.
They figure out all of our tricks — such as shooting off cannons, setting owl statues on rooftops and playing the sound of hawks over speakers — and realize those things aren’t threats.
One benefit is that they clean up the roadkill, Easterday said.
The birds will hang around Danville until late February or early March, Campbell said, and go north to stake out their territories. And then “our” crows will return.
The Christmas Bird Count begins in the middle of December and ends in early January across the country.
Campbell was part of the Forest Glen circle in the Georgetown area, which spotted 61 species, including nine bald eagles (six adults and three immature).
One thrill was seeing a Eurasian Collared Dove, an exotic bird that has been seen in other parts of the state and has been increasing its range lately. Campbell said she hasn’t seen one since 1965 or ’66, and this is the first time in Vermilion County.
The birders also saw six species of owls — screech, great horned, barred, northern saw-whet and long- and short-eared — and six species of woodpeckers, including 22 Pileated woodpeckers. Other birds spotted were: 21 wild turkeys, one red-breasted nuthatch, 60 bluebirds, 29 robins (who are visiting from Canada), one yellow-rumped warbler, eight purple finches and 68 house finches, and seven pine siskin (another northern bird that isn’t seen here every year).
The Middle Fork group usually sees more water birds because of Lake Vermilion and Lake Mingo.
Bailey said the counters saw a couple of sandhill cranes; most leave in November, but with the warmer winters, they try to stay at Heron County Park.
The counters saw one American pipit, which nests on the tundra in Canada and Alaska, and migrate to this area. However, with the warmer winters, they haven’t been coming as far south. They also counted eight bald eagles.
The Middlefork area goes from Interstate 74 on the south, north to Potomac, covers Hillery and Collison on the west, and goes almost to the Indiana line.
Bailey, co-author of the book “Birds of Illinois” and considered a bird expert in the state, participates in seven to eight Christmas counts across the state.
“The Christmas counts have some of the best scientific data of winter bird numbers in the United States,” he said.
“It’s neat to see the dynamics of the different birds. You can see the global warming, where they are.”
Things have been changing among the bird population in the last 10 to 12 years, he said.