Archive for the 'Crows & Ravens' Category

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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Feb 03 2015

In The Corvid Niche

Pearly-eyed thrasher (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
As I mentioned yesterday, there are no corvids in the Virgin Islands.  In fact there are no crows, jays or ravens in Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles but there is a bird who fills their niche.

The pearly-eyed thrasher is the size and shape of a normal thrasher but he’s not a skulker like the brown and Crissal thrashers of North America.  Instead he acts like a blue jay: bold, brash, adaptable and inquisitive.  Conspicuous in flight, he lands with a thud and hop-turns on his perch.  He calls in public and his youngsters beg loudly.

Like corvids, the pearly-eyed thrasher is omnivorous and opportunistic.  He eats fruit, insects and vertebrates including eggs, nestlings, lizards, land crabs and tree frogs.  He’s even earned a reputation for “stealing” because he’s willing to wait and swoop in when humans turn their backs at meal times.  The thrasher below was photographed at a restaurant in the British Virgin Islands “just waiting for the waitress to leave the area so he could enjoy the remains of breakfast left on the tables.”

Pearly-eyed thrasher (from Wikimedia Commons)

And like any corvid, he’s willing to peck an animal he thinks he can kill.

Last Friday during the Francis Bay bird walk our National Park Service guide, Laurel, looked around a corner and suddenly called, “Thrashie! Thrashie! He’s pecking a baby iguana!”  She rushed to the iguana’s rescue and the thrasher flew up to watch his prey.

Laurel showed us the green iguana which was about the same size as the thrasher.

Baby iguana just rescued from a pearly-eyed thrasher attack (photo by Kate St. John)

Here the iguana is a blur as it tries to get out of her hand.

Baby iguana, moving in hand (photo by Kate St. John)

Laurel hid the iguana among green leaves and we moved on to watch the black-necked stilts, leaving the pearly-eyed thrasher behind.

Who knows what happened next.


(Pearly-eyed thraser photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals.
Iguana photos by Kate St. John

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Jan 23 2015

TBT: Crows…

Published by under Crows & Ravens

American crows gather in a tree in Pittsburgh (photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT) is on Friday today because of the short work week.

In the seven years since I started writing about Pittsburgh’s winter crows I can see that they’ve changed their ways.  No, they’re not less boisterous and gregarious.  No, they have not stopped gathering in huge roosts.  But they’ve made adjustments in where they roost and the flight paths they use to get there.  The huge flocks don’t fly over my house anymore.

Back in January 2008 the crows roosted at WQED and caused quite a stir which I addressed with my favorite poem called Crows by Doug Anderson.
(Click here to read…)


p.s. I carry the Crows poem with me wherever I go.  I’m probably the only person you know who carries a poem about crows in her purse.  🙂

(photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

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Jan 11 2015

I’m Gonna Get You!

Raven chases bald eagle chasing osprey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This photo is tiny but it shows the pecking order in the sky.

The bird on the left is an osprey, the middle one’s a bald eagle, the right one is a raven.  Click here or on the photo to see a full size image with a better view of the birds.

The bald eagle wants the osprey’s fish. The raven’s harassing the bald eagle. It’s unusual that all three lined up in one big chase.

“I’m gonna get you!”


(photo by Ciar via Wikimedia Commons.  Click here to see the original photo with documentation.)

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Dec 04 2014

TBT: The Crows Know

Published by under Crows & Ravens

American Crow (photo by Brian Herman)

Throw Back Thursday (TBT):

As birds fly overhead they notice things we humans cannot see because we’re stuck on the ground with a narrow perspective.

Most birds ignore our activity but crows pay attention to humans and watch for things of interest.  How else could they find out it’s Garbage Day and show up just in time to poke holes on in our garbage bags?

In February 2011 there was an early morning mystery on my street.  At dawn, the crows leaving the winter roost flew over my neighborhood and saw it below.  Each flock paused, circled above, and cawed loudly. Click here to read what happened that morning.  The crows were the first to know.

This fall Pittsburgh’s winter crow roost has settled in the Hill District above Bigelow Boulevard near Cliff Street. Because of its location very few crows fly over my neighborhood at dawn.

If there’s a mystery this winter it will have to wait for us humans to discover it.


(photo by Brian Herman)

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