Archive for the 'Crows & Ravens' Category

Jun 19 2017

Fool Me Once …

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Raven in Akureyri (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Raven in Akureyri (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”

A recent study has found that ravens understand this principle as much as we do.  When a human cheats a raven, the bird remembers the experience and refuses to deal with that person in the future.

Common ravens (Corvus corax) are one of the smartest birds on earth. Not only can they solve puzzles, find long cached food, and remember their own complex social structures, but they recognize our faces and understand reciprocity with humans.

To test the ravens’ memory of fair play, researchers worked with ravens in an aviary in Austria. The goal was two-fold: (1) Can ravens remember who acted cooperatively or defectively in a single session? and (2) Can ravens who observe an interaction but have no first-hand experience remember who’s who and act accordingly?

Before the experiment began the ravens learned to offer bread to a human and receive cheese in return. They love cheese.

The experiment involved one-on-one interactions with women the birds had never met before.  A woman faced the raven and held out an empty hand to receive bread while displaying a piece of cheese in her other hand.  A “fair” experimenter received the bread, then gave the cheese to the raven.  A “deceiver” received the bread but ate the cheese herself.

Cheated ravens were outraged!  Every one of them vocalized and hopped around, then ate or hid his remaining bread so the cheater couldn’t get to it.

A month later the same experimenters tried the exchange again.  The ravens remembered the people who cheated them and refused to deal with them.

Did ravens who observed the cheating behavior avoid the deceivers?  Not really, but this doesn’t mean they were stupid. We humans do it, too. “She cheated him but she won’t cheat me.” Hah!

So it comes down to personal experience:  Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

For a quick summary of the study see this article in Science Magazine, or read the complete study at Science Direct.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the image to see the original)

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May 05 2017

What Will A Crow Eat?

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Have you noticed there aren’t a lot of crows lately?  That’s right.  Pittsburgh’s huge winter flock has dispersed and those who remain are nesting.  They’re here, but they’re quiet.

Though crows are secretive right now, you’ll sometimes see one hunting for food.  Lesley The Bird Nerd filmed one catching frogs and stashing peanuts in Canada.

Where can you find crows in May?  Near food.

What will a crow eat?  Just about anything.


(video from Lesley The Bird Nerd)

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Jan 18 2017

How Many Crows Are There?

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Crows in a tree on Thackeray (photo by Peter Bell)

Crows in a tree on Thackeray (photo by Peter Bell)

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has moved … just a little.  No longer at Heinz Chapel they’ve now chosen the London plane trees between Schenley Plaza and Carnegie Library.

In front of the Library the air smells fishy, the sidewalks are blotched, and it’s slippery when it rains.  When folks figure out they’re walking on crow poo their reaction is “Yuk!” and then everyone wants to know, “How many crows are there?”

I don’t know. We’ll have to count.  Easier said than done!

Counting a crow roost is an unexpected challenge.  Crows prefer tall well-lit trees where they perch close together all over the top.  You can’t see them from street level because the streetlights shine in your eyes and obscure them.  Sneaky crows.

However, you can see them from above.  Peter Bell took this photo from an upper floor at the Chevron Science Center in 2011.  As you can see, the crows are well lit and countable.  The Cathedral of Learning would be a good vantage point for the Library crows.

Count them 1-by-1?  Nope!  There are far too many crows and they shuffle around.

To get a good estimate, wait until the crows settle in for the night (after 6:00pm) then count one tree full of crows, count the number of trees, and multiply.  Here’s how.

1.  Pick a typical roost tree and count 10 crows in it, circled below.

One group of 10 crows in a tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

One group of 10 crows in a tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)


2.  Assume the 10-crow circle represents the size of 10-crow groups.  Count the number of circles that have crows in them.  See below.  (I made the circles bigger where the crows are sparse.)

10-crow areas in a roost tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

10-crow areas in a roost tree (photo by Peter Bell, retouched)

3.  Multiply the number of circles by 10 to get the number of crows in the tree.  In this tree it’s 10*23 so my 1-tree estimate is 230.

4.  Now count the number of trees with roosting crows.  I think there may be 20 to 30 trees full of crows at the Library so …

5.  Multiply the 1-tree count by the number of trees.    20*230 is 4,600    30*230 is 6,900.


Before I did this exercise I guessed there were 4,000 crows at the Library.


Anyone up for a challenge?  Want to count crows from the Cathedral of Learning?

How many crows are there?


(photo by Peter Bell)

p.s. My husband says that if this is too difficult, count the number of crow legs and divide by two. 😉

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Jan 01 2017

Last Bird, First Bird

American crows coming in to roost near the Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

American crows coming in to roost near the Cathedral of Learning (photo by Peter Bell)

What species was the last bird you saw in 2016?  Which one was your first of the new year?

Mine were the same species.  Black birds in a black sky.  American crows.  Here’s why.

Yesterday was the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.  I counted birds in my neighborhood (best bird: red-breasted nuthatch) and gave tips to Schenley Park’s counter, Mike Fialkovich, on where to find the best raptors.

By noon, Mike had not seen the eastern screech-owl nor the merlins, and he’d only seen one peregrine at Pitt.  Oooo!  I carved out some time at dusk to run over to Schenley and have a look.  Mike did too, but I didn’t know that.

Dusk came early.  At 4pm I raced around by car and on foot to find the owl (yes!) the merlins (yes!! two!) and both peregrines (alas, none).  Interestingly, Mike and I saw the merlins at the same time but did not see each other.

Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but see hundreds of crows coming in to Schenley and Pitt for the night, still flying after sunset.  By the time I got home no other birds were out.  Crows were my Last Bird of 2016.

This morning before dawn they flew over my house on their way from the roost.  American crows were my First Bird of 2017.

Happy New Year!


p.s. When I stepped outdoors to hear the crows, I heard an unexpected Second Bird of 2017: an American robin singing his spring song, Cheerily Cheerio.

(photo by Peter Bell)

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Dec 30 2016

Why The Raven Is Black

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Why is the raven black?

In this Inuit legend the raven used to be light-colored. Then one day he played a game with a snowy owl.  By the time the game was over, the raven was black.

Watch this 6 minute video to see how it happened.


(Inuit legend video from the National Film Board of Canada on YouTube)

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Dec 19 2016

Crows Are Smarter Than 6-Year-Olds

Published by under Crows & Ravens

American crow carrying two peanuts (photo by Jacob McGinnis)

(photo by Jacob McGinnis)

By now everyone in North Oakland is wondering: Why is it so hard to move the winter crow roost out of our neighborhood?

Perhaps it’s because crows are smarter than 6-year-olds.

Back in 2013 researchers presented New Caledonian crows with the same cognitive tests given to children ages 4-10.

All the children passed the simple water displacement tests: Drop pebbles into a water-filled tube to raise the water level and bring a floating treat within reach.

But children ages 4-6 failed the final test in which two of the tubes had a hidden connection. Stones dropped in one tube raised the water in another.  Six-year-old brains weren’t mature enough yet.

Children ages 7-10 passed that final test, “Experiment 6, U-Tube” at the end of the video below.  Notice that the crow succeeds.  He, too, is smarter than a 6-year-old.

Since crows understand cause and effect, simple scare tactics just aren’t scary enough.  Crows see through the ruse and innovate around the problem.

So getting the crows to leave North Oakland is a bit like convincing a roomful of boisterous 7-year-olds that they want to choose what we have in mind.

Perhaps we could get some tips from Cub Scout leaders.  😉


Read more about this study here in Science Daily.

(photo by Jacob McGinnis)

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Dec 08 2016

Pitt’s Crows In The News

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Crows gather at Pitt (Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/Photographic Services, linked from University Times)

Crows gather at Pitt (Photo by Aimee Obidzinski/Photographic Services, linked from University Times)

Today’s University Times has a great article by Kimberly Barlow about the crows who roost on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

Click here to read Annual crow stopover makes work for Facilities.


(photo by Aimee Obidzinski/Photographic Services, linked from the University Times article)


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Nov 30 2016

Moving The Crows

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Thousands of crows roosting at the University of Pittsburgh this month have finally worn out their welcome. Their slippery “fallout” on the sidewalks, especially near Heinz Chapel, tipped the scales against them. This week Pitt began using crow scare tactics to make them move.

Scaring crows is a noisy process that takes days or weeks to be effective. Pitt’s first step is to play a very loud recording of screeching birds in distress and kakking peregrine falcons (click here to hear). The tape was playing yesterday at 4:30pm near Clapp Hall, so loud you could hardly think!

If the recording doesn’t work the next steps are even noisier. The video above shows how Penn State uses pyrotechnics to convince their crows to leave, but it can take a while. Crow expert Margaret Brittingham explains how the crows learned to circumvent the deterrents with amusing results.

So now I’m curious. How long will it take to convince the Pitt crows to leave? And where will they go?

Time will tell.


p.s. This is the first year that Pitt’s “new” peregrines, Hope and Terzo, have experienced the scare-crow recording. I don’t know what Terzo’s reaction is but Hope has been visiting her old site at Tarentum a lot lately. She was there yesterday afternoon.

(p.p.s. On the audio track the single crow sounds like a raven to me.)

(video from Penn State University)

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Nov 10 2016


Evidence that crows roosted here (photo by Kate St.John)

Evidence that the crows roosted here (photo by Kate St.John)

As I mentioned on Monday, thousands of crows are back in Oakland roosting near the University of Pittsburgh.  Though the flock is spectacular they’ll soon be unwelcome.

If your neighborhood hosts a crow roost you know about the unpleasant debris left behind by these overnight visitors.  Everything is dotted with bird poop.  The sidewalks are slippery in the morning and the air smells “bird-y.”  This fallout is the #1 reason why crow roosts aren’t welcome near us.

When people have had enough, the crows must go.  The best way to move them is by persistent audio harassment.

In November 2013 the crows caused trouble night after night near the University of Pittsburgh Student Union so Maintenance set up a loud speaker that played bird distress calls and peregrine attack sounds over and over.  In five nights the crows were gone.

I have a theory that my favorite bird helped move them.  Read why at:

The Crows Moved


p.s. If the crows persist near Pitt, my hunch is that crow-scare tactics will begin by November 15.

(photo by Kate St. John)

2 responses so far

Nov 07 2016

Thousands Of Crows In Oakland

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

Ever since the winter crows came back to Oakland I’ve wanted to watch them arrive at the roost so last Friday evening, November 4, I stopped by Schenley Farms and Pitt’s campus.  What a spectacle!

Half an hour before sunset a steady stream of silent crows flew in from the southwest to the hill above Bigelow Boulevard near Centre Avenue.  I assumed they would spend the night up there, but no!

Crows are afraid of great horned owls — for good reason — so they want a good view from the roost. They prefer the tops of tall well lit trees or rooftops five to ten stories high. And they want no owls nearby.  Perhaps that’s why they like cities.

The sky was clear on Friday evening and the light lingered long after sunset at 6:13pm so my camera could “see” them against the sky.  Before it was dark nearly 40 crows chose this bare tree. The tree isn’t full yet.

Crows assemble in the treetops (photo by Kate St.John)

Crows assemble in the treetops, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

As darkness fell they left the hilltop for the area bounded by Fifth, Bayard, Bellefield and Tennyson.  And now they were loud!  Hundreds flew above me on Bayard Street.

Hundreds of crows above Bayard (photo by Kate St. John)

Hundreds of crows above Bayard (photo by Kate St. John)


They assembled at the roof edges of tall apartment buildings and then burst off to choose another site (photo at top).  They landed on Alumni Hall and packed in tightly on the Wyndham Hotel roof.

As night falls some crows choose Alumni Hall rooftop for their roost (photo by Kate St. John)

As night falls, some crows choose Alumni Hall’s roof (photo by Kate St. John)

… and they settled in the treetops on campus, 100 to 200 per tree.

Crows settle on the treetops on Pitt's campus, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

Others settle in the treetops on Pitt’s campus at Fifth Ave, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)


I calculated 4,000 crows in that four block area, but they were still arriving after it was too dark to see.  I have no idea how many spent the night there.

Until today most people didn’t notice the crows because rush hour was over by 6:00pm.  But today we’ve changed the clocks back and rush hour will be at sunset, 5:09pm.

People will be surprised by the spectacle — and some will be repulsed — that there are thousands of crows in Oakland.


(photos by Kate St. John)

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