When one family began feeding crows in the Portage Bay neighborhood, a nearly two-year neighborhood battle ensued.
Crows are among the brightest of animals, able to recognize faces, to work for cheese. They are part of mythology in various cultures. In early Asian beliefs, having a crow fly in front of you was bad luck; finding a dead one on the road was good luck.
But in the Portage Bay neighborhood in Seattle, crows have been at the center of an epic, nearly two-year neighborhood battle.
Even the cops have been called in.
• There are 40 species of crows, and they live everywhere except Antarctica.
• They have 250 different calls. A distress call brings other crows to their defense.
• Crows will eat practically anything — road-kill, fast food, mice. An adult crow needs nearly ¾ of a pound of food daily.
• The origin of “eating crow” has been lost. In one version, during the War of 1812, a British officer made an American soldier eat part of a crow he had shot in British territory.
Sources: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, PBS Nature, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife
And it’s all been about one family feeding crows in an apparent never-ending buffet.
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There is just something about crows that brings out the emotions and, oh, accusations have flown.
One set of neighbors around the 1000 block of East Shelby Street says their homes have been carpet-bombed by avian poop.
Some 50 signed a petition asking the city to intervene.
Neighbors say that having anywhere from 30 to 100 crows hovering during feedings made them feel like they were in Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film, “The Birds.”
So it surprised the neighbors when in February a glowing story about the family feeding the birds titled “The girl who gets gifts from birds” appeared on BBC News and then was reprinted in Crosscut, an online Seattle publication.
After that, versions of the story appeared at numerous sites such as the UK’s Daily Mail.
The story was about the 8-year-old daughter of Lisa and Gary Mann, and how crows would leave her gifts when she fed them — an earring, a polished rock, “anything shiny and small enough to fit in a crow’s mouth.”
The story says the daughter was “prone to dropping food” when getting out of the car, which the crows would rush to recover. As she grew older, the daughter would share her school lunch with the crows, says the story, and the crows would line up in the afternoon to greet her.
Then the gifts began appearing.
Nowhere in the feel-good story was the neighborhood tension mentioned.
Katy Sewall, author of the BBC piece, said in an interview that Lisa Mann never mentioned those hassles. After publication of this story, she says she hadn’t remembered an email in which Mann mentioned problems with her neighbors.
“The neighborhood tensions were never my focus,” Sewall wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, tensions escalated.
Here they come! Caw, caw, caw!
Neighbors say they got used to being awakened by that sound. They say the crows soon were joined by large numbers of pigeons also looking for a handout, plus rats.
Yes, nerves got frayed.
On the other side, the family feeding the crows set up video surveillance.
Lisa Mann says in an email that neighbors have directed “vitriol and shouting” not just to her but also “my two young children whose love for these birds is how all our passion for all birds came to be.” In emails, Mann agreed to be interviewed for this story, but was unable to schedule a time over several weeks.
Neighbors say the kids haven’t been shouted at, although certainly there have been confrontations between them and Lisa Mann. Neighbors say that generally they haven’t interacted much with Mann’s husband, Gary Mann, an oncologist.
Christine Yokan, a pension fund investment manager who lives next to the Manns, itemizes:
“Heavy bird feces on and around neighbors’ houses was causing damage to buildings and vehicle paint, and occasionally, disgustingly, landing on neighbors themselves. Properties were being littered with food scraps; peanuts and shells were being strewn on the lawns of families with allergic children …”
Yokan says there certainly was shouting, but at the crows.
“Many neighbors including myself definitely have shouted at the birds to go away many times, including when the Mann family was in the yard feeding. Some neighbors, including me, would bang pans to drive them away,” she says.
Janice Palm, a psychotherapist who lives across the alley from the Manns, says that when her granddaughter comes over, “I don’t like her to go to the backyard, it’s so filthy back there.”
Palm says she gave up putting “lovely spring flowers” in her planters. The crows, she says, “are just pulling up the plants and throwing dirt around.”
One confrontation took place on July 29, 2013. A Seattle police report tells of Lisa Mann calling the cops, saying she was in an argument with a neighbor up the hill. Mann told police she was berated by the neighbor, “by telling her that the cawing of the crows keeps him awake at night …”
The previous night, Mann told the cops, she had heard what sounded like rifle shots, and then saw that same man “emerge above some hedges.” But, Mann admitted, she didn’t see him holding a weapon.
Officers told the neighbors that it is illegal to shoot off an air gun within the city limits.
The neighborhood battle continued.
The neighbors contacted City Council members and city agencies.
Eventually, this past January, an investigator for Public Health — Seattle & King County visited the Mann property.
Leah Helms, the investigator, issued a notice of violation for bird food accessible to rats, and said bird feed needed to be at 3 ½ feet above ground, on smooth poles and other measures.
About the crows, she says, “it’s not unlawful to feed birds. We solely deal with rats.”
On a return visit in March, the investigator said that the Manns had complied with the measures.
John Marzluff, a professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, and a crow expert, says he has heard from both sides of the Portage Bay crow battle.
“The technical way to describe what happened is that the crows have surpassed the cultural capacity for that neighborhood,” says Marzluff.
Yes, that’s a polite way of describing things.
In one email, Lisa Mann says that her neighbor to the east, Matt Ashbach, an ear, nose and throat doctor, took a dead crow “and illegally hung it in effigy off of his third-floor balcony of his million-dollar mansion.”
She also says her surveillance cameras showed “an adult male” on Ashbach’s property “at our fence line” in “the exact spot” where a dead rat was found on the Manns’ property. Mann writes that the rat had been killed in a rat trap and put on her property as “ ‘evidence’ of a rat infestation” for Helms to find when she visited later that same day.
Ashbach says he did use rat traps after seeing “rats in my backyard all over the place.”
As for the video showing him in his backyard, Ashbach says he parks his car in the back, and “I’m in the backyard every morning around dawn as I leave for work.”
He also says he did find a dead crow and hung it from his balcony, which was a method he learned to keep crows away when growing up on a farm.
He says he likes crows, just not in such large numbers.
Marzluff says that crows are very smart birds, and hanging one of their dead brethren sends them the message to keep away.
Anyway, Don Jordan, head of the Seattle Animal Shelter, says, “There is no law prohibiting someone from hanging a dead crow.”
In any case. Ashbach took down the crow. He says he’s tired of the confrontations.
The neighbors report that the feeding of the crows has lessened considerably lately.
It appears that the Great Crow Battle will end for good in a few weeks.
In an email, Lisa Mann says that “we are moving to Houston this summer as my husband accepted a surgical faculty position …”
Needless to say, the neighbors can’t wait.
Information in this article, originally published April 22, 2015, was corrected April 24, 2015. In a previous version of this story, Katy Sewall said Lisa Mann never mentioned her conflict with neighbors. After the story was published, Sewall said, she discovered an email she had not remembered in which Mann mentions the conflict.