The Crows Moved

Crow-scare recording at Univ of Pittsburgh, Nov 2013 (video by Jason Carson on YouTube)

15 November 2013

Since late October, Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has been big and brash in Oakland.  At dusk they flood the sky, gathering on roofs and treetops to choose a place to sleep.  Last week they roosted in the trees around Pitt’s Student Union and the Cathedral of Learning.  This got them into big trouble!

Every night pedestrians dodged the “rain” from trees filled with crows and every morning the sidewalks were a slippery crow-poop mess.  The crows had to go.  But how to convince them?

Last weekend Pitt positioned a loudspeaker on the low roof of the Student Union and played very loud bird distress calls over and over all night. They ran it for five nights, Friday through Tuesday, Nov 8-12.

Most people didn’t know it was a recording.  In the dark it sounded like birds fighting and dying:  a robin in awful distress, an unidentified bird screaming and a peregrine kakking.

Late Saturday night Jason Carson recorded the video above and tweeted me with the question: “What is this? Are the peregrines fighting?”

Initially I was fooled and thought it was real, though it didn’t make sense.  Any bird suffering that much would have died after the first assault and the noise would not repeat.  Then Pat Szczepanski told me she heard it Sunday night at 6pm and it dawned on me.  Duh! It’s a recording.

Usually crows are not impressed by bird distress recordings.  They are way too smart to be fooled for long.  Sometimes the only thing that will move them are bird-scare firecrackers like the ones they use at Penn State (click here for videos of Penn State’s “crow wars”).

Why were a few nights of noise enough to move Pittsburgh’s crows away from the Cathedral of Learning?  I have a theory and I think it’s pretty good.

Crows are afraid of peregrines but they’re more afraid of great horned owls.  They know Dorothy and E2 live at the Cathedral of Learning and they know peregrines hate great horned owls so they probably figured “The enemy of my enemy is my friend” and they chose to roost at Pitt.

But last weekend there was an awful ruckus and the sound of peregrines defending their home.  “Oh my gosh!” thought the crows, “The owl must be here!  I hear the peregrines attacking it!”

In the dark Dorothy and E2 swooped low to investigate the noise.   “Oh no!” said the crows, “The peregrines are here!  Fly away!”

The crows didn’t move far but they moved far enough.  By Monday evening they were avoiding the trees on campus and roosting instead on the roof of Soldiers and Sailors Hall.   Just far enough to avoid the owl and the peregrines.  Just far enough that Pitt is happy.  Just far enough that the noise has ceased and Dorothy and E2 can get a good night’s sleep.

Without real live peregrines at Pitt, the crows would not have been fooled.

(video from Jason Carson on YouTube)

10 thoughts on “The Crows Moved

  1. Thanks for solving this mystery! I also thought it might be a recording on repeat to scare the crows but wasn’t sure.

  2. Well, they no longer fit on the branches of the trees around Soldiers & Sailors and its roof. They are back in about 5 trees near the union, all the ones nearest Fifth and Bigelow and their buddies up the street.

    1. Crows back in the Student Union trees: Well that’s unfortunate. Pitt will run the recording again & the peregrines are going to get annoyed & lose sleep again. I wonder if this has anything to do with those 8 trees now missing from Ruskin Ave — chopped down in late October (in my blog called Crows Adapt). Hmmm. That’s just the same number of trees the crows are looking for. Hmmm.

  3. They were gone again last night. Maybe just all the rain the night before. They were awfully unsettled Sunday night, maybe trying to find that branch that let them face into the wind or to shake off any rain drops that hadn’t rolled off their backs. Last night they were facing all directions and packed pretty tightly onto the branches again in calm weather. Or maybe they’re beginning their move to Polish Hill.

    I’ll miss them when that happens. When they’re all tucked in at night, there are lots of low croaking noises they make. Really eerie, but if you know where its coming from and check up, seeing them packing the length of every branch and all the edges of Soldiers is so neat.

  4. I’ve just arrived in Pittsburgh from the UK last night, after dark, and not really knowing where I was, went to sleep early, but because of the jetlag I woke up before 6am this morning, hearing the sounds of crows. Dark and unable to see anything outside, I googled Pittsburgh crows and found your website. Turns out I’m in a hotel near 5th Ave and Lytton Avenue in Oakland, and my window is facing 8 tall trees, all FULL of crows. I’ve got the perfect picture window view. Shame I’m not a better photographer, but I’ll put some photos on flickr and post the link here if you like. At least I’ll have some entertainment for my jetlag early mornings. Have they really cut down London plane trees to relocate the crows. If so, that’s outrageous.

    1. Sarah, welcome to Pittsburgh. They didn’t cut down the trees to relocate the crows. Instead a developer cut down the trees to build a new building (unnecessary in my opinion, but they didn’t ask my opinion). The crows relocated to Pitt’s campus — temporarily — perhaps because of the missing trees. (The development is on the corner of Ruskin and Bigelow 1-2 blocks from your hotel.)

  5. I’ve been dodging the “crow rain” walking from my classes in Thaw and Chevron to the Soldiers and Sailors parking garage. There are so many crows! How long do they usually hang out on campus? I don’t remember there being this many last year.

    1. The crows usually start moving to Polish Hill & the Strip District around Thanksgiving … but every year is different. I hope they’ll move soon so they don’t wear out their welcome forever.

  6. I am thinking that Pitt is in violation of Pittsburgh’s noise ordinance-

    I am not disturbed by the crows but am disturbed by that distressing recording that I can hear all the way on Lytton Ave all day long, with my windows closed.

    I am very concerned that the University of Pittsburgh’s loud recording is affecting other wild birds in the area as I no longer see any at my bird feeders.

    The crows were never even around during the day.
    They arrive at twilight and leave before the sun comes up.

    So the crows poop.
    Rain and snow also fall from the sky- use an umbrella.
    Humans should stop being so self centered, and try to share this world with nature which does not all reside in the zoo or aviary in cages.

    One old crow died in the night .
    I buried it, and thought how sad some of my neighbors are so obsessed with disturbing them through out the night with horns, whistles, firecrackers etc.
    Where is their compassion?

    Traffic and student foot traffic makes more noise than the crows, and at least the sound of crows is a song of nature to be enjoyed.

    And Kate thanks for you super fast response to my question yesterday!

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