Why Kenya plans to kill a million Indian crows

The invasive species feasts on local wildlife, snatches food from tourists, attacks chicks in poultry farms, and poses bird strike hazard at airports.

Published : Jun 22, 2024 16:03 IST - 4 MINS READ

An Indian crow on a tree.  In Mombasa, Kenya, these “invasive birds” have become a major environmental concern, prompting officials to plan the elimination of one million crows by year’s end.

An Indian crow on a tree. In Mombasa, Kenya, these “invasive birds” have become a major environmental concern, prompting officials to plan the elimination of one million crows by year’s end. | Photo Credit: PERIASAMY M/THE HINDU

Just as a pink birthday cake is brought out to the garden, an ominous flock of gulls dive bombs a bunch of panicked kids, wrecking their party. A large murder of corvids inexplicably descends on a jungle gym at a school park as oblivious children sing. And without warning, a home is invaded by hundreds of raucous sparrows, which enter the living room through the chimney, throwing a formal dinner into disarray. These iconic scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963horror film The Birds are a depiction of nature gone berserk—the creatures also happen to break windows, kill and gouge out eyes—but it is also a commentary on the havoc that humans have wreaked on the environment.

Mirroring this metaphor is a real-life story unfolding in Kenya, featuring the Indian crow. The invasive species Corvus splendens, with its origins in India and other parts of Asia, was first introduced in Zanzibar in the 1890s to control garbage. By 1917 they were considered pests in East Africa and a bounty was awarded to anyone who brought in a dead crow or crow egg, according to conservation group A Rocha Kenya. Now, a century later, they have firmly laid siege to Kenya: they feast on local wildlife, make off with food on tourists’ buffets, attack chicks in poultry farms and pose a bird strike hazard at airports.

Kenya, which has had enough of the menace, announced earlier this month that it plans to eliminate a million crows by the end of the year. According to Down to Earth, hoteliers in the country have even been given the go-ahead to import licensed poison towards this end. Some have already started using Larsen traps (a cage-like device to live-trap birds with the help of a decoy). Others have hired staff with catapults just to keep crows away.

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Mombasa, Kenya’s coastal town, has become the India’s crow’s favourite haunt thanks to a garbage crisis. They are believed to have entered Mombasa in 1947 via ships or from neighbouring Zanzibar. The bird has also moved 700 km inland to towns such as Marigat. There are fears that it will invade the protected Arabuko Sokoke Forest, and that, by pushing out native species of birds such as babblers and sunbirds, could aid the proliferation of insects. “They are now also venturing into intertidal zones during low tide, eating molluscs and other small marine organisms on the exposed reef,” Eric Kinoti, who head the Crows No More! Initiative at A Rocha Kenya, told Frontline.

The country is taking the alien species very seriously, especially as concerns rise about the potential spread of disease. An action plan was discussed at a recent meeting with the Kenya Wildlife Service, representatives from the hospitality industry, vets and A Rocha.  

While much of the impact of the Indian house crows has been felt along the coast of Kenya, “they have been sighted as far as Cape Town in South Africa and Djibouti and Cairo,” says Kinoti. His fear is that the bird will enter Nairobi. “We cannot let them reach Nairobi as they will pose a great problem to the native fauna especially at the Nairobi National Park.”

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The organisation has opted to use Starlicide, an avicide that was designed to kill European Starlings in America. “Crows are closely related to starlings and therefore the avicide works similarly, says Kinoti. “It takes effects 10 to 12 hours after the crows ingest it; it is also safe as the dead crows are poison-free as Starlicide is broken down before the crow dies.”

Back in India, the adaptive house crow has reached most places where human settlements are present, except the high Himalaya and deep inside forested areas, explains Ashwin Viswanathan, who works with the Bird Monitoring Team at Nature Conservation Foundation. “It remains an important species in India due to the fact that its population is stable and that it has cultural significance.”

Meanwhile, the Indian crow has spread to vast swathes of the world, largely via ships. “But they have also been deliberately introduced in places,” says Viswanathan. The gregarious bird is now found everywhere, from Europe to West Asia, Australia to the Americas.

The Indian crow joins an interminable list of invasive species that have proliferated largely due to global trade. A third of all first introductions were recorded between 1970 and 2014, according to a paper published in Nature Communications in 2017, whose authors include members of the IUCN’s Invasive Species Specialist Group. This phenomenon continues despite the many international agreements and laws to address the problem, say the authors, who studied a database of a whopping 16,926 established alien species.

“Inter-continental and inter-taxonomic variation can be largely attributed to the diaspora of European settlers in the nineteenth century and to the acceleration in trade in the twentieth century,” says the paper. IUCN’s formidable Global Invasive Species Database includes the giant African land snail, the Asian glossy starling, the common myna, lantana bushes, the cane toad and the Asian tiger mosquito.

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