Category Archives: Bird Behavior

Who’s Chirping In That Hedge?

Hedge in front of a house (photo by decaseconds via Flickr Creative Commons license)

14 January 2021

It’s winter and you’re out for a walk in the neighborhood. As you approach a hedge you can hear it’s alive with hidden birds. They sound like this:

Or this:

The noise is a flock of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) but the hedge is so dense and dark that you can’t see them. The photo below shows the problem; click on it to see the birds in a digitally brightened version.

House sparrows in a hedge in Saskatoon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

House sparrows are always gregarious, but more so in winter when they flock together in large numbers.

Flock of house sparrows in Moscow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the morning and afternoon they disperse to feed, but twice a day — at midday and in the evening — they gather in dense shrubs or evergreens and chatter for an hour or more.  If you approach the hedge they suddenly fall silent. If you peer inside you’ll find a few birds looking wary. The rest have flown out the other side.

If you wait long enough, someone else will watch the hedge for you.

Cooper’s hawk watching for backyard prey, Vienna VA (photo form Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of a hedge by decaseconds on Flickr via Creative Commons license; sparrow photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Ravens In Pittsburgh!

Raven in Schenley Park, 4 Jan 2021 (photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis)

13 January 2021

The smartest bird in the western hemisphere, the common raven (Corvus corax), has come to town and is claiming nest sites in the City of Pittsburgh. Ravens have been seen in Schenley Park, above, and are regularly found at Forbes Avenue in Frick Park. This is a big deal because…

Common ravens were extirpated from eastern North America by 1900. After 1950 they slowly recolonized remote areas of the north and Appalachians but were rarely seen in eastern cities. We were very surprised when a pair showed up at Brunot’s Island in October 2007 and eventually nested there. Since then, very slowly, ravens have become more visible in Pittsburgh.

Common raven flies by Western Penitentiary, 13 Oct 2007 (photo by Chuck Tague)

Ted Floyd, editor of the ABA’s Birding Magazine, sparked a discussion of city ravens in his blog post: How to Know the Birds: No. 51, The Impossible Raven.

Ted has Pittsburgh roots from the time when ravens were scarce, but now lives in Boulder, Colorado where ravens are common in town. His tweet prompted lots of feedback from Pittsburgh birders.

Michelle Kienholz contributed video of ravens at Forbes Ave in Frick Park including a second video of a raven “whispering” sweet nothings to his/her mate. (Michelle’s remark refers to a photo of the raven diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History taken by Mike Fialkovich.)

[When the car noise abates briefly at 0:19 below you can almost hear what the raven is saying, a muted “whup … whup”.]

Watch and listen for ravens in the city. “Brock! Brock!”

(photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis and Chuck Tague plus embedded tweets)


Murmuration of starlings in Rome, Italy (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

8 January 2021

Many people in North America don’t like starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) for their aggressive invasive behavior, but starlings can do something beautiful that no other songbird can match. At dusk as they gather to roost, starlings fly in tight flocks that wheel and turn in unison. Their murmurations make beautiful patterns in the sky.

This 4-minute video of starlings at dusk was recorded at RSPB Otmoor Reserve, a birding hotspot in Oxfordshire, UK.

And here’s a short clip from San Rafael, California.

Unfortunately, the murmurations are smaller than they used to be. Starlings have declined 80% in the UK and 49% in the U.S. since 1970.

Murmuration of starlings in Studland, Dorset, UK (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Won’t Live Where It’s Hot

Stresemann’s bush-crows, Soda Plains, Ethiopia (photo by Nik Borrow, Creative Commons license on Flickr)

Seven years ago I wrote about an endangered member of the crow family in Ethiopia whose range is small and shrinking. Similar in size and sociability to our Florida scrub-jay, Stresemann’s bush-crow (Zavattariornis stresemanni or Ethiopian bush-crow) lives in just 6,000 square miles of southern Ethiopia’s Borana rangelands in an area smaller than New Jersey.

Has the bird’s status changed in the last seven years? No, but we know more.

A 2012 study found that his range was limited by daily high temperature. In 2018 a team of scientists investigated further, taking temperatures throughout the region and comparing the bush-crow’s range to two other local species — white-crowned and superb starlings. Their report at the British Ornithological Union blog showed that Stresemann’s bush-crow has a narrow favorite temperature range and is heat intolerant.

The starlings don’t care how hot it gets but the bush-crow won’t live where the maximum daily temperature is over 30 degrees C (86 degrees F). (Graphs embedded below from

Figure 3 embedded from study in 2018 on Ethiopian bush-crow

This wouldn’t be a problem except that it’s getting hotter.

Find out more about the bush-crow’s dilemma at:

(photo of Stresemann’s bush-crow by Nik Borrow via Flickr Creative Commons license, Figure 3 embedded from High temperatures and hot birds; click on the captions to see the originals)

Can Crows Learn To Pick Up Coins?

Carrion crows living up to their name, Annecy, 2011

4 December 2020

In the late 1990’s technologist and inventor Joshua Klein began thinking about crows and how they thrive in the human landscape. Crows pick up food we’ve left behind but can they learn to do useful things? What about picking up coins? By 2008 he’d invented the crow vending machine.

Klein’s 10-minute TED Talk in February 2008 set the world ablaze. Crows will pick up coins for peanuts!

You may be wondering: Can I have one of these for my backyard?

Klein’s latest Official Crowbox (August 2018) is the size of a backyard feeder. But don’t get too excited. It looks like you need a soldering iron to put it together. Watch how it works here on YouTube.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original. video embedded from TED Talks)

Love Those Fries

Crow with a French fry (screenshot from rattyvonratkins24 video)

17 November 2020

When thousands of crows come to town for the winter what do they find to eat?

Every morning they wake up in the city and spread out during the day to find food near and far. Some travel 10-20 miles to glean from fields and landfills. Others raid dumpsters, prowl parking lots, or poke holes in garbage bags waiting for neighborhood collection.

Up to 65% of an urban crow’s diet is made up of human food and we sure make a lot of it available. Nothing is faster than fast food, especially fries.

Some crows like to dunk their fries.

They are not daunted by paper bags. In this video by Quiscalus a flock of fish crows fights over a bag of fries until the herring gulls take over. I’ve seen this happen in Virginia Beach.

There’s even a 12-foot statue honoring their preference. Crow With Fries by Peter Reiquam was installed in Auburn, Washington on 31 May 2019. (See more at Reiquam’s website.)

Junk food raises crows’ cholesterol but doesn’t seem to have an adverse health effect, at least during the two years of this study.

Love those fries!

(screenshot from YouTube video, statue photo from Reddit; click on the captions to see the originals)

Pennsylvania’s State Bird Chased My Car

Ruffed grouse, Moraine State Park, 13 Nov 2020 (photo by Dave Brooke)

16 November 2020

On my way to meet friends at Moraine State Park last Friday, I stopped to check a few coves for tundra swans. My first stop was better for bird behavior than for waterfowl. As I drove away a ruffed grouse chased my car!

Though ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) are Pennsylvania’s state bird it had been three years since I’d seen one in the state and even then I reported the sound of one drumming in the distance, not seen. The ruffed grouse population has been declining for decades so it is rare to find one. On Friday the 13th one found me.

Naturally when I saw a grouse in my rearview mirror, flying after my car, I parked and got out to look. By then he was perched in a tree, strutting and turning his head in an apparent territorial display. I took his picture with my cellphone. He was further away than he appears.

Was he tame? Was he habituated to humans and cars? Was he stocked by the PA Game Commission?

At my next stop I told Linda Crosky and Dave Brooke about my experience. They later went to find the grouse and Dave took photos of his Life Bird (at top).

Dave also did some research and found out that, no, the PA Game Commission probably doesn’t stock them at Moraine but yes, grouse sometimes act this way. Birds like this are few and far between. They are not tame. They are hyper-territorial.

This spring PA Game Commission Ruffed Grouse Biologist Lisa Williams made a video of her visit with a so-called tame grouse. He tried to take a bite out of her.

If “tame” ruffed grouse were the size of T. Rex we’d all be dead.

p.s. Want to see more? Click here for a 2017 video of a “tame” grouse approaching two men in Pennsylvania.

(photo at top by Dave Brooke; second photo by Kate St. John)

Traveling Together?

Tundra swans at Middle Creek, 2014 (photo by Dave Kerr)

As waterfowl arrive on migration it’s interesting to note that some families travel together, others do not.

Bird parents and offspring stay together during a nesting event but among most species the families split up after the breeding season. Notable exceptions are swans, geese and cranes which stay together as a family unit. The youngsters learn the route and wintering grounds from their parents. If their parents don’t migrate neither do they.

Above, a tundra swan family comes in for a landing at Middle Creek. The youngster (gray head and neck) is still following his parents as they head north in the spring.

Pennsylvania’s resident Canada geese don’t migrate because their parents do not. Back in 1937 when Canada goose populations were dangerously low, a few pinioned geese were released in PA. Those geese bred, but could not migrate. Their offspring never left.

Canada geese, in family groups (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Each duck species has its own migration strategy but that doesn’t mean they travel in family groups. For many, fall is the time to meet and greet the opposite sex. Mixed flocks of gadwalls (Mareca strepera) pair up while they travel. According to All About Birds, virtually all female gadwalls have a mate by November.

Gadwall pair (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For birds, traveling as a family is the exception.

Some always travel alone.

Common loon, non-breeding plumage (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

(photo of tundra swans by Dave Kerr in 2014, remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Where Will The Crows Sleep This Winter?

Winter crow flock flies over Soldiers and Sailors, 24 Oct 2020, 18:30 (photo by Kate St. John)

28 October 2020

Since moving to Oakland three months ago I’ve had a front row seat on the crow population. From a family group of six crows in late July the numbers grew to 200 in mid-August, 1000 in late September, 5000 in mid-October and now in late October 10,000 crows come to Oakland every night. The question that worries everyone who has trees is this: Where will the crows sleep?

Crows roost in mature trees or on flat roofs where there’s ambient light, white noise and no disturbance. They want the lights on so they can see danger coming, especially owls. They like white noise — the sound of traffic, rushing water, or humming fans — but they don’t like sudden loud noises.

About 10 years ago the crows chose Pitt’s campus (photo below, December 2017).

Hundreds of crows roost in a tree at Univ of Pittsburgh, moon and Heinz Chapel in background, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Two winters ago they moved one block north to Schenley Farms, a small neighborhood of mature trees and historic homes where their noise and slippery feces are overwhelming. This year Schenley Farms is going to encourage the crows to sleep elsewhere by making sudden loud noises before the crows settle for the night.

The first step, however, is to find out what the crows are doing. I volunteered for that job and I love it.

I’ve learned that crows move into Oakland almost exactly at sunset, land in final staging areas 1-3 blocks from the roost, and swirl around for 30-45 minutes until they settle.

Crows heading for Oakland at sunset (photo by Joanne Tyzenhouse)

Last Saturday the crows didn’t choose Schenley Farms but I couldn’t see their final roost west of Soldiers and Sailors because of intervening buildings. On Monday evening at 8pm Michelle Kienholz photographed them roosting on trees and buildings near the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH).

Crows roosting on the treetops across from GSPH, 26 Oct 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

They’re hard to see in her photo below …

Crows roost near Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, 26 Oct 2020, 8pm (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

… so I removed the brown and circled them in red. They line the roof edge and the treetops. One is flying in the dark!

Crows roost on 26 Oct 2020 at 8pm near GSPH (photo by Michelle Kienholz with markup)

So far so good. The crows aren’t sleeping near the Cathedral of Learning. They’re not at Schenley Farms.

There’s still a possibility they could choose Schenley Farms but if they do the residents will use “clappers” like those Pitt has found effective for dispersing crows — simply two boards connected by a hinge that can make a loud clapping sound.

Crow “clappers” used at Pitt (photo supplied by Alex Toner)

If clappers don’t work Schenley Farms will warn the crows before they roost by making really loud noises — pyrotechnic “screamers and bangers.” So far it hasn’t come to that.

Where will the crows sleep this winter? Perhaps far away.

Let me know if you find them.

(photos by Kate St. John, Joanne Tyzenhouse and Michelle Kienholz. Clappers photo via Alex Toner at Univ of Pittsburgh)

They Eat Poison Ivy

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

22 October 2020

When you see a bird eating white berries from a hairy vine you might not realize it’s eating poison ivy. Birds are blissfully immune to the urushiol in poison ivy sap that gives us humans a nasty rash.

By late October poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) doesn’t look like the plant we’ve been avoiding all summer. The leaves are red or missing, the vine is exposed, and bunches of white berries hang from the branches. It’s easy for migrating yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) to find the food they’re so fond of.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating poison ivy berries (photo by Cris Hamilton)

Resident birds such as downy and pileated woodpeckers munch on the berries all winter.

Pileated woodpecker eating poison ivy berries (photo from Flickr by Jen Goellnitz, Creative Commons license)

It makes me feel itchy to think of it!

p.s. Deer eat poison ivy, too.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Flickr via Creative Commons licensing by Dendrioca cerulea and Jen Goellnitz; click on the captions to see the originals in Flickr)