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House Crows no more

Brief history of House Crows in East Africa

The House Crow is indigenous to the Indian sub-continent and was introduced to East Africa first in Zanzibar in 1891. Initially, they were a form of ‘pollution control.’ But by 1917, they were rated as a pest with a bounty awarded to any dead crow or crow egg brought in. The presence of crows later spread to mainland Africa and up to Mombasa where they were first recorded in 1947. From there, they have spread up and down the coast becoming ‘common’ in Malindi in the late 1980s and now crows can be found in all the coastal towns and even inland to towns like Mariakani and beyond.  

Crows have become a serious pest in many places in Africa from East London (City in South Africa) to Djibouti in the north. Like so many introduced exotic animals and plants all over the world, they have not just spread, but they have extremely proliferated over the years. For instance, a count in Watamu in January 2024 had over 12,000 crows and in March 2024, a count showed that Malindi had >31,000 crows. It not only harasses and kill native small birds but also known to spread diseases, damage crops and are a nuisance to hotels and businesses.

First attempt to control their population

Successful control of the crows was carried out by A Rocha in Watamu and Malindi between 1998 and 2005 using a specific avicide known as Starlicide, which operates over a period of about 10-12 hours. The 10 to 12 hours window gives the crows time to go about their normal business as usual. Usually, they die at the roost sites the night after taking the poison and thus some distance away from where they have fed on the poison. This means the survivors do not associate the death of their fellow crows with a specific site or food. They, therefore, will not be any wiser. Additionally, Starlicide metabolises rapidly and thus a poisoned crow, if found dead, is poison free and can be eaten safely by a scavenger such as a dog or vulture.  
Crows are highly intelligent birds. Researchers tell us that they are as good at reasoning as a 7-year-old human. That is why as many measures as possible have to be taken to hide the source of poison if the programme is going to be effective.

How it was done

With support from Turtle Bay Beach Club, Driftwood Club, residents, and other hotels within Watamu, we employed a young man who would alternate between 7-8 days in Watamu and 10-12 days in Malindi. He would pre-bait the crows and then poison them and do daily counts. In this way, we had crow numbers as low as five birds in Watamu and 25-30 in Malindi at times. But with a constant influx of crows from Kilifi and Mambrui, there was a constant need to keep poisoning them. However, the programme was halted by government in 2005 due to bureaucracies and only in 2024 has the green light been given for the control programme to start up again.

Recent history of crow control

A Crow Control Committee was set up by the Kenya Wildlife Service in 2019 of which A Rocha was a member and it was given the remit to make crow control happen. A lot of ground work was carried out and a full proposal for a crow control programme drawn up. Around the same time a landscaping firm, Little Kenya Gardens (LKG), was issued the licence to import the avicide, Starlicide, to carry out efficacy testing as part of the process of getting it formally accepted. In 2020 the Committee was instructed that LKG should carry out the efficacy testing of the poison ahead of a full poisoning programme. With the work having been given to LGK, the Committee had no real function and it ceased operating towards the end of 2021.

In 2022, 2½ kg of Starlicide poison was imported by LKG and an efficacy test poisoning was carried out on south coast at the end of that year. A large number of crows were killed but full reports are yet to be circulated.

But there is hope!

In July 2023, the Director General for KWS, Dr Erastus Kanga, visited Watamu with the new KWS Board for a stakeholder meeting at which he confirmed his commitment to eradicating the crows. He was involved in the Crow Control Committee in his role within the Ministry of Tourism and so is fully aware of the challenges the committee faced. He is therefore very well placed to address the issues and get things happening. It is in this context that A Rocha is reigniting the efforts to control the crows – and reviving the ‘Crows No More!’ project that was started by Nick Trent under the Crow Control Committee.

As A Rocha, we are grateful that we are in an excellent position to support KWS to achieve the crow control given we have a strong history of using the Starlicide poison to significant effect in Watamu / Malindi prior to it being banned. We have been liaising with KWS and are awaiting the final go-ahead to secure the Starlicide from Little Kenya Gardens and implement the control programme.
As we wait, and indeed also throughout the control work, it is important to gather data. We need to know how many crows are there, where they roost and forage so that when it is time, we can target them most effectively. We need to be able to monitor the crows before, during and after the poisoning takes place to make fully informed decisions and ensure the success of the programme.
Since December 2023 our Crows No More Officer, Eric Kinoti, has been organising roost counts, mapping currently used crow traps, gathering data on crow distribution and foraging sites and starting to carry out pre-baiting in the expectation of our being able to secure the Starlicide and implement the control.

To date, the Crows No More! programme has been supported by six Watamu hotels to whom we are very grateful: Hemingways, Turtle Bay Beach Club, Watamu Cottages, Ocean Sports, Medina Palms and Temple Point. However, as the full control programme gets going, we are going to incur significantly higher costs with a larger team, transport needs and then the poison alone costs $5,800 per kg.

As part of the programme, an online crowd-funding site which we launched in 2020 has been revived: m-changa. If you would like to contribute and help rid Kenya of this serious avian alien pest, please do make a donation. We will be sharing updates and reports on the programme and if you would like to receive these, please write to Eric asking to be added to the mailing list: <[email protected]>

Kirao during the crow counts in Malindi