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Cub Scouts race for fun and prizes at Cayuga County Pinewood Derby

AURELIUS — A hush would often overtake the crowd as vehicles took off at the 2019 Cayuga County District Cub Scout Pinewood Derby before exploding into excited shouts once the cars hit the finish line.

The competition for Cub Scouts took place at the Fingerlakes Mall in Aurelius Saturday. Two tracks were set up, with three cars racing against each other on the tracks for each race. John Cummings, an organizer for the event, said he fondly recalls making pinewood vehicles with his father when he was a Scout.

Jason Hirvela said his son Owen Hirvela, who is a Scout, got interested in the derby when Owen stumbled upon the pinewood derby trophies Jason amassed when he was a Cub Scout.

"He said, 'Dad, I want to win trophies like you did,'" Jason said.

The two went over YouTube videos on the vehicles, learning the physics of how they move so quickly, so it had been an educational experience, Jason said.

Scout Evan Payne said he enjoyed the competition. Evan, 10, said his vehicle hadn't done well so far that day but he was more concerned about the design of his entry anyway. He said he was hoping his blue car, which sported a red octopus, would win the design contest part of the day, but would nevertheless cheer on the winner if he didn't take victory.

Evan's mother, Jessica Armstrong, said she likes that the Cub Scouts and the games emphasize sportsmanship. 

"I think the Pinewood Derby is a great experience for everyone," Evan said.

Scout Tucker Padlick, was wide-eyed throughout the event, saying his shark-themed car had already won races. Tucker, 5, talked about what he enjoyed about the event.

"My favorite part is when we race our cars — and when I win!" he exclaimed.

Scouts Jaden and Cameron Jones looked at the tracks with excitement. Jaden, 8, who had come in second twice so far, leaned forward to see how his vehicle was doing. He said he enjoyed the games and likes the activities being a Cub Scout offers.

Liz Dominguez, the boys' mother, said she appreciates the community feeling the Scouts promote.

"It's about being a part of a group," Liz said. "Everybody knows each other, we support each other. We're like a big family."

Gallery: 2019 Cayuga County District Cub Scout Pinewood Derby in Aurelius

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Black skies, white sidewalks: The state of Auburn's crows

It's become an Auburn cliché to say, but every winter evening, the city's skyline looks like Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds."

Indeed, that's when thousands upon thousands of crows saturate Auburn's treetops and soar over its streets in numbers rarely seen outside the classic horror movie.

But the similarities end there. To be sure, Auburn's birds don't kill people. And, ominous as it may appear, the city's avian presence isn't shrouded in mystery like the movie's. Experts can explain why all those crows are drawn to Auburn. And, after being trained by those experts, the city's Department of Public Works can more or less control where the birds descend.

Despite those control efforts, which began 14 years ago, crows remain a fact of life in Auburn — especially for Mike Talbot. The city's DPW superintendent since 2011, and an employee of the department since 2000, Talbot has seen almost the entirety of Auburn's crow saga. Like clockwork, he said, they arrive alongside winter in late November and all but disappear by March 1.

"I bet someday they'll just stop coming here for whatever reason," he said. "Just like they started coming here."

Although reports of the birds amassing in the trees outside Auburn date back more than a century, it wasn't until the late 1990s that they started roosting inside the city in significant numbers, said Kevin J. McGowan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca. Having observed the city's crows for more than two decades, as well as populations across the state, McGowan believes they come to Auburn along a diagonal migratory path that stretches from Quebec and Nova Scotia to the area where West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania meet.

But there's a simpler explanation why, of all the places on that path, the crows congregate so strongly in Auburn, McGowan said. 

"The agricultural fields are the big draw. It's an area that has abundant food the crows can access during winter," he said. "The city is a central place for them to gather at night and go out into the fields during the day. So Auburn's great because it's geographically in a good spot for the crows and has big trees to roost and fields to forage." 

According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services, the U.S. crow population has been steadily increasing since 1966. Researchers counted 63,800 in Auburn in 2005, the report said. Meanwhile, 25,740 were counted in Albany, 16,320 in Troy and 12,000 in Utica — all cities with at least twice Auburn's human population of 27,707 that year. At the time, Wildlife Services said Auburn had the most crows the department had ever documented in New York state. They outnumbered humans more than 2-to-1.

Wildlife Services also said its report was prompted by rising complaints about the murder of problems created by urban crows: picked-apart trash, cacophonous nighttime caws and, of course, poop. 

"You wish they wore diapers," Talbot joked.

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen 

Crow droppings cover benches along the outlet on Loop Road in Auburn in February.

In Auburn, the messy birds were met by welcoming parties of hunters, who organized a crow shoot tournament in 2003. In turn, the hunters were met by protesters, who called the tournament a massacre. The event ended in 348 birds dead and at least four protesters arrested for trespassing. But the heated debate over the treatment of Auburn's birds continued.

In 2004, bolstered by the previous year's controversy and an advertising vehicle in the form of a customized 1986 Pontiac Firebird christened the "crow mobile," the tournament returned. That year's hunt claimed 1,067. By 2005, a bill to outlaw such events was introduced to the state Senate, but wasn't passed. Free to fire at will, hunters bagged another 1,061 crows in 2005 and 453 in 2006.

A common argument from crow hunt protesters — and crow defenders to this day — was that the birds give Auburn character. Decades after their arrival, that does seem to be the case, whether it's Crow City Roasters coffee or the mural of the birds on Exchange Street. Talbot, for his part, has developed for the crows the kind of respect one often develops for a longtime adversary.

"They're such a smart bird," he said. "And you don't want to hurt them." 

For better or worse, the crows have also drawn attention to the city. A National Geographic crew filmed the flock in 1998, and the hunts drew widespread media attention years later. 

But perhaps the most compelling argument against hunting Auburn's crows was its inefficacy. Every bird killed was a drop in the bucket, one dead against 50 still alive and roosting.

So Auburn turned to the USDA. In 2005, the city spent $14,000 on a hazing program led by Wildlife Services. Using pyrotechnics, lasers and recordings of calls from distressed crows, members of that team and the Department of Environmental Conservation drove almost half of Auburn's population out of the city in one week. Many went to Cortland and Geneva, McGowan said.

In 2006, Wildlife Services counted 36,525 crows in Auburn. The participants in that year's hunt — the last to date — blamed the USDA's hazing efforts for similarly cutting their haul in half. 

McGowan warned, though, that hazing crows is like shoveling snow: It will always have to be done again.

That's why, when the USDA returned to Auburn in 2006, it taught employees of the city's Department of Public Works how to continue the hazing.

Today, Talbot said, those efforts remain about the same as they were 14 years ago. One difference is that city employees no longer use crow calls as part of their hazing program. Broadcast by speakers on a truck, the calls annoyed Auburn's human residents more than its avian ones, Talbot said. And after awhile, he continued, the birds adapted to them.

"They'd see our truck coming and just not move," he said. "They actually post lookouts. They're in constant communication."

When they don't have snow to plow, two city employees spend their winter evenings hazing crows, Talbot said. They use two types of pyrotechnics — one makes a screeching sound, the other a "pop!" — as well as a gun that projects a laser the size of a golf ball. But effective as those measures are, and experienced as the DPW is with them, hazing can still be frustrating, Talbot continued.

The Citizen file 

Auburn Department of Public Works employee John Gridley uses a laser to disturb roosting crows in the city in November 2009.

Auburn's crows don't follow any one itinerary through the city. They could line the Owasco River near the Mill Street Dam, greet guests of the Hilton Garden Inn or accentuate the grim atmosphere at Fort Hill Cemetery. But wherever city employees find the birds, Talbot said, they try to guide the flock toward the Municipal Landfill at Auburn's northwest corner, where there are trees to roost and refuse to eat. That herding process, however, can easily feel like going in circles, Talbot said. And it means ignoring the myriad other tasks on the department's to-do list.

That's not to say Auburn's hazing program hasn't been successful, Talbot said. Some years, he continued, the crow population does seem to go down. But such observations are anecdotal at best: Talbot thought last winter wasn't so bad, for instance, while McGowan was amazed at the number of birds. The reason for that disparity is because there hasn't been an official count of Auburn's crows in more than a decade. Wildlife Services said it hasn't conducted work in the city since 2008. And for the DPW, counting the birds is even more difficult than hazing them, Talbot said.

"You can sit there with one of those counters all night long. One crow looks like the next crow, which looks like the next," he said. "And they circle, they land, they hop, they're all over the place."

The department has another crow-related duty — so to speak. After the birds leave Auburn, employees must clean their droppings from city benches, monuments and sidewalks. With thousands of crows occupying such a small area, it doesn't take long for those droppings to get unsightly, Talbot admitted, but his department simply doesn't have the resources to clean them every week.

The same smelly chore also falls to Auburn property owners. Both Joseph Catalfano, owner of 39 Genesee St., and Joseph Bartolotta, owner of several buildings in the city, said that cleaning up after crows is routine maintenance. The limousines at Catalfano's business, J&J Limousine Service, and the cars of tenants at Bartlotta's rental properties are particularly vulnerable, they said.

The nuisance posed by the crows has provoked Auburn residents into taking their own actions against them, Talbot said. Some douse their trash in bleach to dissuade the birds from eating it. But he cautioned against that, as city staff still has to collect the bags. There are harmless ways to haze crows, however, such as lobbing a snowball at a roost or even clapping to scatter it, Talbot said.

There are also decidedly harmful ways to thin the area's crow population. As regulated by the DEC, their hunting season is Sept. 1 through March 31 in New York. And despite the relaxed attitude toward shooting crows in Auburn's recent history, lately there have been no instances of illegal crow hunting in the area according to the DEC, Auburn police and the Cayuga County Sheriff's Office. 

McGowan understands the instinct to repel Auburn's crows, the revulsion they inspire. It can be unsettling to see so many birds sharing the same air as us, he said. The endurance of Hitchcock's movie in the collective unconscious certainly hasn't helped. But McGowan also suggested trying to appreciate the crows. With climate change, it's uncertain that they'll always come to the city, though he believes their migratory patterns won't be affected too significantly. Regardless, McGowan said, Auburn has in its crows something worthy of awe. He compared the sight of them to the passenger pigeons that darkened the skies 100 years ago, the buffalo on the Great Plains, the herds that roam Africa. They're a natural phenomenon speaking, in coos and caws, to our imagination.

"You just don't see wildlife congregate like that," he said. "It's an incredible thing."

Gallery: Auburn's winter crow population, then and now

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen 

Crows return to the city at dusk over Genesee Street in Auburn in February.

Challenger hoping to become Onondaga County executive

Four people have served as Onondaga County executive since the position's creation 58 years ago. None of them are Democrats.

Tony Malavenda hopes to end the Republican Party's stranglehold on the county's top job.

Malavenda, D-DeWitt, received the Onondaga County Democratic Committee's endorsement to challenge Ryan McMahon, a Republican who was appointed county executive after Joanie Mahoney's resigned last fall. Democrats endorsed Malavenda Monday, one day before candidates could begin circulating petitions.

The decision to run for county executive follows the recent sale of Duke's Root Control, the business Malavenda founded with Kevin Duke. The company removes roots from municipal sewer systems. At the time of its sale, Duke's had roughly 3,000 clients in 48 states.

Malavenda, 62, told The Citizen he's always had a passion for politics. He campaigned for an Onondaga County Legislature seat in 1983 and lost to incumbent Republican Gerald Mingolelli Jr. He remained interested in politics, but he focused on building his business instead of another campaign for public office.

Now that he sold his business, he said he has the time for a political run.

"If I don't do it ... then who's going to do it?" Malavenda said.

After selling Duke's Root Control, several people have asked him if he's going to move to Florida. The Sunshine State doesn't interest him. He plans to stay in central New York — he's building a house in Syracuse — and wants to serve the community in a new role.

Malavenda noted that county government, at least the county executive's position, has been controlled by one party. Since the position was created in 1961, there have been four county executives, all Republicans.

"I feel that someone like me, right now, can bring a fresh perspective to the area," Malavenda said. "I really do believe it. We need a different and better vision."

He believes his business experience can be an asset. If elected county executive, he said he would bring an "entrepreneurial spirit" to local government. Such an approach, he explained, would help create jobs, invest in infrastructure and address poverty throughout the county.

There have been some positive developments in recent years. New businesses have opened and millennials that left the county are moving back, Malavenda said. One of his two daughters works at Syracuse-based Digital Hyve, which has been ranked as one of the fastest-growing companies. His other daughter is finishing her studies at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

"I feel like there's an energy there and I want to nurture that," he said.

Barring a Democratic primary for county executive, Malavenda will face McMahon in the general election. McMahon has more than $426,000 in his campaign account, according to the latest filing with the state Board of Elections. He has incumbency on his side, too. Not only was he appointed county executive last fall, but before that, he was chair of the Onondaga County Legislature.

McMahon's platform, so far, has focused on many of the same issues Malavenda is discussing now — infrastructure, jobs and poverty. The advantage McMahon has is that he has been working on these issues in government. Malavenda, despite his prior run for office, acknowledges he's a neophyte.

That's why he plans to embark on what he called a "learning tour" to hear from residents throughout the county.

"I'll talk to people in the towns, as well as the city, and hone my own skills, hone my own knowledge," he said. ​

Kevin Rivoli, The Citizen 

Crow droppings cover benches along the outlet on Loop Road in Auburn in February.