Archive for the 'Crows & Ravens' Category

Feb 11 2016

Capitalism Benefits Brainy Birds?

Published by under Crows & Ravens

American Crow with peanut (photo from Shutterstock by Al Mueller)

American crow with peanut (photo from Shutterstock by Al Mueller)

On Throw Back Thursday:

A 17-year bird study that bridged the end of Communism and the start of capitalism in East Germany and Czechoslovakia showed the mix of species changed. Birds with small brains declined. Birds with big brains thrived.

Does capitalism benefit brainy birds? Click here to find out.


(photo from Shutterstock by Al Mueller)

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Jan 17 2016

Whose Voice Is That?

Blue jays mimic the sounds of raptors to warn (or fool!) other blue jays.

In Pittsburgh they often mimic red-tailed hawks.  In Florida red-shouldered hawks are much more common so the jays imitate them instead.

This video from MyBackyardBirding in Florida is a good example of how blue jays can sound like red-shouldered hawks.  Can you tell who’s who when they aren’t on screen?

The mourning dove seems to be having a hard time figuring it out.


(video from MyBackyardBirding on YouTube)


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Jan 15 2016

A Conversation Between Two Birds

During the snowy owl irruption two years ago, John Dunstan recorded this video of a raven and a snowy owl having a conversation.

The raven says many things.  The snowy owl is unimpressed.

Notice at 1:20 in the video that the top of the raven’s head seems to grow “ears.”  This dominance gesture means “I’m big! Watch out!”  The owl doesn’t care and reaches over to peck the raven at 1:44.  The raven’s ears go down … but up again at 2:09.  What’s going on?

John Dunstan asked raven expert Bernd Heinrich, author of The Mind of the Raven, for an explanation and put Heinrich’s reply in the video description:

Naturalist Bernd Heinrich, author of “The Mind of the Raven”, was nice enough to provide this description.

Hi John,
The first thing to notice is that the owl is TOTALLY unimpressed. It’s not scared in the least, and the raven has no aggressive intentions, but starts out being just curious – like: “what the hell is This!” So it tests – tries to get a reaction. But the owl still stays totally nonchalant. At some point the raven then tries a different tactic – it puts on its “I’m a big guy” display of erect “ear” feathers – usually used to show status in the presence of potential superiors, but here used also with a bowing and wing-flaring, which is used in supplication if there is NOT going to be a challenge – so, yes, I think the raven was having fun, and then also starting to have some respect, because this big white thing was NOT going to cooperate and be its toy. 

The comments on the video are priceless!  Click here to see the video on YouTube and read the comments.


(video by John Dunstan on YouTube)

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Dec 21 2015

The Peanut Challenge

Why is this crow trying so hard to carry three peanuts when he could easily carry two and come back for the rest?

Last Friday Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eNewsletter featured this video from Ontario FeederWatch where a crow was tempted by unshelled peanuts.

Though he could easily carry two, the crow spent more than a minute trying to pick up a third.  At 40 seconds into the video he was salivating so much that he “dripped” onto the platform.

Finally he achieved his goal and flew away.  Two seconds later we see why he had to take so many in one trip.  Competition!

Want to see more?

Located in the Thunder Bay District of Ontario, Ontario FeederWatch runs day and night.  In addition to the crow the cam has recorded a flock of pine grosbeaks, a hungry ruffed grouse, and a night time visit from a northern flying squirrel.

Click here to watch the birds at Ontario FeederWatch.


(video from Cornell Lab’s Ontario FeederWatch)

p.s.  The feeders are in Manitouwadge, Ontario, a town so remote that it’s an 11.5 hour drive from Toronto and 8 hours from Duluth.  Click here (and zoom out) to see it on Google maps.

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Nov 29 2015

Crows With Red Beaks?

Published by under Crows & Ravens

Red-billed choughs in Ireland (photo by Steve Valasek)

Some birds on other continents resemble our familiar backyard species.  Even if you don’t know their names you can make a good guess.

For instance, the black birds above look a lot like crows.  Indeed they are corvids though they’re not in the Corvus genus.

Red-billed choughs (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) or simply “choughs” are native to Europe, Asia and north Africa and one of only two species in the Pyrrhocorax genus.  The other is the Alpine chough (Pyrrhocorax graculus).  Steve Valasek photographed these two in Ireland.

Choughs are a little smaller than American crows (Corvus brachyrhyncos) and would look the same except …  Well, here’s a side-by-side comparison using photos from Wikimedia Commons.

Red-billed chough in India, American crow in San Diego by Dick Daniels (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Red-billed chough in India, American crow in San Diego by Dick Daniels (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

I think our crows would be amused by those curved red beaks and red legs.

“Mr. Shuff(*), what kind of crow are you?”


(photo by Steve Valasek)

* Chough is pronounced “shuff.”

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Nov 24 2015

Where’s The Roost?

Winter’s coming and the crows are back in Pittsburgh.

Last week at dusk I saw 3,000 flying over Shadyside heading directly west, but I don’t know where they were heading.

Four years ago they roosted above the Strip District near 21st Street and Liberty Ave where Sharon Leadbitter captured them in this video.  But there’s no guarantee that’s their favored place this year.

When crows become too annoying we humans apply just enough pressure to move them along.  Sometimes they move a little, sometimes a lot.   The year they quit the Strip District they chose an abandoned spot in the Hill District.

Where’s the crow roost this year?  Have you seen it?

We need to know before Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count on December 26 so we can count the crows. 🙂


(Youtube video by Sharon Leadbitter)

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Nov 20 2015

A Stinky Surprise

Last Friday I showed how bored birds can cause car trouble.  This week another bird — who isn’t bored at all! — creates a future mess.

In the video above, a common raven at the Juneau, Alaska airport decides to cache a bit of salmon in the grill of a rental car.  He flips it and hides it in various spots in the grill.

The video’s author says the raven is hiding food from his own reflection and challenging himself when he pecks at the window.

I’m not so sure he’s confused by his reflection  … but no matter what this raven is thinking the next person to rent the car will be in for a stinky surprise!


(video from YouTube. Click on the YouTube logo to see the details)

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Nov 18 2015

Ravens Console Each Other

A pair of ravens in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

A pair of ravens in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all seen it happen.  Two people fight in public, perhaps with only words and innuendo.   When the fight is over, some of the bystanders console the victim.

This kind of consoling is a rare trait among species, especially when those involved have no pair bond.  Humans and chimpanzees exhibit “affiliation behavior” but we thought it didn’t happen among birds until a 2010 report in PLOS One showed that ravens do it, too.

The Konrad Lorenz Research Station in Austria studies behavioral ecology and animal cognition, often focusing on the ravens whom they house on site.  For the 2010 study, Orlaith N. Fraser and Thomas Bugnyar worked with a group of 13 young hand-raised ravens, some of whom were related.

Ravens live in dynamic social groups so, inevitably, fights break out.  For two years the researchers tracked the winners, losers, and bystanders, and the intensity of the fights.  The data showed that bystander ravens console the losers with whom they have a relationship — more so if the fight was intense.  Sometimes the bystanders step in without being asked, sometimes the victims seek consolation.   Interestingly, the fights were more likely to stop when the victim sought consolation from friends.

The study concluded that “ravens may be sensitive to the emotions of others.”

Of course they are.

Click here to read more at PLOS One.


(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Nov 02 2015

What The Heck Are They Saying?

Cawing about ... what? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Cawing about … what? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)


In case you haven’t noticed yet, the winter crow flock is back in town.  They’ve been in the East End of Pittsburgh since at least October 15 but our daily rounds have been out of synch with their activities until now.

Today, with sunrise and sunset an hour earlier, we’ll see the crows commuting during rush hour and we’ll certainly hear them.  Why are they so loud in the morning?  What the heck are they saying?

Last month I participated in a live Cornell Lab of Ornithology webinar on Understanding Bird Behavior by crow expert, Kevin McGowan.  He gave tips on observing birds with examples of what the behaviors mean. McGowan was especially insightful on the subject of crows.

Most of the time cawing pretty much means “Hey! Hey! HEY!” but in the morning crows take a neighborhood census.  McGowan suggested their conversation goes something like this:

Hey, Bob, did you die last night?

I’m alive! So don’t bother coming over and trying to take things.  And leave my mate alone.


In the quick YouTube video below McGowan describes crow and raven vocalizations.  We don’t know exactly what they’re saying but we can often guess.


Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a wide selection of educational webinars that you can watch any time for a small fee.  Click here to see what’s on offer.

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Feb 11 2015

Crows Exonorated!

In some cultures and for some people, crows have a bad reputation. Their black feathers and eerily intelligent behavior have linked them with bad luck and death.   Even those of us who like crows are upset when we see them take birds’ eggs and nestlings.  Our distaste for this extends to other members of the corvid family as well.

Some game and conservation organizations kill corvids believing this will help the small birds that corvids prey upon.  Does it?  A recent study published in Ibis says “No.”

The Institute of Research in Game Resources (IREC) studied 326 interactions between corvids and their prey in Europe and North America.  They monitored 67 prey bird species including passerines and game birds.

When researchers removed all predators from the study areas the prey-bird populations increased but when they removed only the corvids there wasn’t much change.  In fact, some prey populations suffered in the absence of crows!

Crows had an impact on reproductive success but this didn’t make much difference to the species’ populations.  Study author Beatriz Arroyo said: “In 81% of cases studied, corvids did not present a discernible impact on their potential prey. Furthermore, in 6% of cases, some apparently beneficial relationships were even observed.”

So is it good conservation practice to kill corvids?  “This method of managing populations is frequently ineffective and unnecessary,” says Arroyo.

Crows are exonerated!

Read more about the study here in Science Daily.


p.s. As you can see in the video, crows just want to have fun.  😉

(video of a hooded crow on YouTube.  Hooded crows are native to Europe.)


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