When trading stories about their shared hobby online, they use screen names like Harras, Foxfright, Pubhunter and Demonicus. As a group, though, they call themselves "the Crowbusters" -- because they love to shoot as many crows out of the sky as possible.
For these fanatics, no amount of exertion is too great for such a murderously good time. "Drove 1,651 kilometers (1,030 miles) in three great days, slept 6 hours," one of them brags online. "It was a hell of a lot of fun."
Of course, no one doubts that the crow hunters are a bit crazy. After all, they outfit themselves like members of an elite military unit about to head off to war, wearing fatigues and face masks and armed with semi-automatic rifles and decoys.
In an online forum operated by the German hunting magazine Wild und Hund ("Game and Dog"), owned by the Paul Parey publishing house, the Crowbusters discuss the overwhelmingly addictive sensation they experience while playing "crow pingpong." When one of them says on his mobile phone "Wait, here comes a crow … Boom! Boom!" the person on the other end of the line will wait a few seconds before saying "Pop! Pop!" as if to report that the crow had been hit.
Slaughters with Collateral Damage
The Crowbusters' kill rates are unusually high thanks to their military-grade equipment. During a hunt in the Upper Franconia region of Bavaria, the Crowbusters impressed local hunters by bringing down a total of 316 "crap-scratchers." Farmers, who don't like it when curious crows peck at the plastic covers on silage bales, had spread liquid manure on their fields to lure the birds.
The headline "80 Against Unlucky Raven" appeared in a Wild und Hund story describing the biggest crow hunt the publication had ever organized. The shootout in the sky took place last year in the Münsterland region of northwestern Germany, and it was broadcast live on the online forum of Wild und Hund.
By the end of the hunt, 333 crows lay dead, 80 percent of which were young birds. Six magpies also fell victim to the slaughter. In a hunt like this, says ornithologist Ulrich Mäck, it's almost impossible to avoid killing protected species, such as rooks and jackdaws. "Especially during the colder half of the year," he adds, "birds in the crow family tend to fly in mixed flocks."
Working on Faulty Assumptions
Of course, the hunters justify their crusade by pointing out that crows -- or what they sometimes refer to as "feathered vermin" -- attack young rabbits and partridges as well as steal eggs from the nests of other birds. The crow population has gotten out of hand, the hunters argue, and they blame the birds for reducing the stocks of small game and songbirds.
But the fact is that none of these claims holds water. As biologists have long known, the real culprit behind the decline of rabbits and larks is the agriculture industry, which creates farmlands that support few species and lack the natural hedges and copses in which birds and other animals can find protection. "So where are meadow birds supposed to live if there aren't any real meadows anymore?" asks Mäck, the ornithologist.
Indeed, according to Stefan Garthe, a vice president of the German Ornithological Society and professor of bird ecology at the University of Kiel, the increased cultivation of corn and rapeseed to be used as renewable-energy sources will only hasten the decline of ground-nesting birds and songbirds.
The claim that crow populations are too large is also untrue. "These are subjectively felt numbers," says Mäck, who used to work as an assessor for Germany's Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN). Since open fields are becoming less and less suitable as habitats, rooks and carrion crows are migrating to cities. This, in turn, makes the people living there more aware of their presence.
In other words, the large-scale shooting of crows does absolutely nothing to help rabbits and partridges. Already in 2005, Klaus Pohlmeyer, then a wildlife biologist at Hanover's University of Veterinary Medicine and the head of the hunting association in the northwestern German state of Lower Saxony, had about 12,000 carrion crows caught and killed as part of a study examining the effects of reducing crow populations. Results of the study showed no increase in small game populations despite the massive reduction in crow numbers.
"If we wanted to give the endangered bird species an advantage by hunting their predators," says Mäck, the ornithologist, "we would have to remove all the predators from entire areas." Doing a thorough job, he explains, would mean getting rid of all the "hedgehogs, squirrels, martens and cats."
Fighting Back against the Crowbusters
Of course, this wouldn't occur to even the most trigger-happy hunters, since they would prefer to cultivate the image of crows as ravenous foes. But, biologists say, in doing so, they are training their gun sights on birds that might have a level of intelligence comparable to that of some primates.
"I've never experienced such feverish hunting of a particular species, not even when it comes to foxes," says Johann Beuke, a 56-year-old resident of Twistringen, a town in Lower Saxony, and a member of Germany's ÖJV ecological hunting association. According to Beuke, crow populations are particularly threatened by the fact that many German states have bowed to hunter pressure by virtually eliminating hunting off-seasons. In doing so, they are contravening not only an EU directive on the conservation of wild birds, but also Germany's Animal Protection Act. In an attempt to put a stop to what Beuke calls "extermination campaigns," the ÖJV has teamed up with Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) and the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).
These large-scale killing sprees are even too much for some conservative hunters. Harry Neumann, a local BUND representative, convinced Klaus Skowronek, the head of a hunting club in the western German Westerwald mountains, to no longer allow the Crowbusters to hunt in the region. "As far as we're concerned, this area is now a no-go," Skowroneky says, adding that he finds "crow pingpong distressing."
Even the conservative German Hunting Association (DJV) has recently decided that the "excesses" and "questionable images" associated with the Crowbusters' actions could hurt the image of hunting in general. In late February, the association plans to address the problem of these marauding crow killers.