Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

The Calm Before The Crows

Fish crows at Red Hook, NY (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

30 August 2023

In August in the East End of Pittsburgh we get a taste of November dusk. It isn’t the weather or the clouds or the time of sunset. It’s a flock of more than 100 crows, a hint of the thousands to come this fall, that gather on rooftops along Neville Street before flying west to roost.

This year in early August the crows were absolutely silent but as the month progressed a few spoke out, telling me they were in a mixed flock of American and fish crows. American crows (Corvus brachyrhyncos) say “Caw.” Fish crows say a nasal “Uh-oh” (Corvus ossifragus). It’s the only reliable way to tell them apart.

American crow: “Caw Caw Caw.”

Fish Crow: Nasal “Uh oh”

video by Sayre Nature HD on YouTube

I wanted to count by species but the crows remained silent and unidentifiable through most of the month. I tried to tell them apart by sight but my focus on appearance made it impossible to count. So I stop trying. My August eBird checklists place all of them as “American crows” with an X for “Fish crows present.”

Then suddenly last Saturday they were all “talking” and about three quarters of them were fish crows. The flock continued on Sunday evening but I was too busy to count. I shouldn’t have assumed they’d be here on Monday. They were gone and they haven’t been back.

The big flocks will arrive in late October, comprised of 90+% American crows.

For now we’re in the Calm Before The Crows.

p.s. eBird’s Fish Crow Weekly Abundance map shows a dot in Pittsburgh in the month of August … and then it’s gone. Watch the animation here.

(credits are in the captions)

Who’s Smarter? Raven or Crow?

  • Common raven (photo from Wikimedia)

25 July 2023

Scientists say that the smartest animals have large brains and have become so intelligent because their lifestyles force them to solve complex ecological (ex: food, habitat) and social problems (ex: long-term social bonds that may include absences).

Ravens and crows both have large brains relative to their body size and both are good at problem solving. The Raven Diaries (@theravendiaries) takes a look at which species acts smarter and why.

video embedded from @theravendiaries on YouTube

So which one is smarter? It’s a hard call between crows and ravens.

Crows understand the concept of zero and know that 0 precedes 1, a feat that beats small humans.

Ravens were tested against chimps and came up equally intelligent: Young Ravens Rival Adult Chimps in a Big Test of General Intelligence. They were also equal if not better at “theory of mind,” the ability to imagine what others are thinking: Ravens have paranoid, abstract thoughts about other minds.

For example, this video shows two ravens guessing what the other is thinking and act accordingly.

video embedded from ____ on YouTube

Kaeli Swift of Corvid Research is often asked if ravens are smarter than [you-name-it] animal. Here’s the long answer.

(credits are in the captions)

With Their Mind But No Wings

Coyote pouncing, Golden Gate National Recreation Area (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 January 2023

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are highly adaptable and very smart about food and humans because their lives depend upon it. Of course they live where food is plentiful but in places like Pennsylvania, where they’re hunted or trapped without limit all year long, they hide from humans and operate at night. In locations with less human pressure they forage during the day and encounter their familiars — ravens and sometimes crows.

Coyotes and Corvids often meet when it’s time to eat, especially at carcasses in winter. The carcass below attracted ravens and a black-billed magpie along with the coyote.

Coyote with ravens and magpie at a carcass in Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Ravens apparently realize that coyotes are smart for they sometimes enlist their help by leading them to a carcass they cannot open on their own.

Coyote near a raven at Metzger Farm Open Space, Colorado (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

How do Corvids describe a coyote? Perhaps like this, as described by Doug Anderson.

Crows

Hunch in the trees
to gossip
about God and his inexorable
experimenting,
about deer guts and fish so stupid
you could sell them air
and how out in the deserts
there’s a dog called coyote
with their mind
but no wings. …

— excerpt from Crows by Doug Anderson from Blues for Unemployed Secret Police Curbstone Press ©2000.  (Reprinted by permission, http://www.curbstone.org/). Click here for the full poem.

Common raven perched on a car (photo by David Kay from Shutterstock.com in 2011)

No wings? No problem. Here’s a coyote.

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

Happy New Year! Found The Crows!

Crow with his beak thrust through a bun, the paper still clinging,” 27 Dec 2022 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

1 January 2023

Happy New Year! Claire Staples and I counted 20,000 crows for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count yesterday.

Three days ago it looked like we were headed for a washout. Rain was in the forecast and on 29 December I found only 15 crows while driving 16 miles to scout recent locations — from Parkway Center Mall to Woodville Ave, Uptown, the Hill District, Polish Hill, the Strip District and the River Trail at Heinz Lofts. Fifteen!?!

Fortunately, thanks to hot tips from readers, we counted 20,000 crows last evening from our vantage point near Rooney Stadium at Duquesne University. Big Thank Yous go to:

  • KEM, who passed along a Reddit video of crows at Duquense U. (Silly me. For weeks I looked at the Forbes end of campus.)
  • Elizabeth Norman, who emailed at dusk on 30 December that crows were flying west to east over Allentown/Mt. Oliver. I saw them simultaneously from my building rooftop.
  • Lori Maggio, who emailed on 30 December that thousands of crows were swirling above the Blvd of the Allies at Mercy Hospital and Duquesne University in near darkness. (my Aha! moment)
  • Norman Wise, who confirmed on 31 Dec that there’s a large roost in the wooded area farthest northeast between Mount Washington and the South Side Slopes.

I triangulated those reports and looked for a high vantage point that could see all of them. Claire and I counted crows from the Bluff at Duquesne University and had the best crow count ever. Close in the air and countable.

Crows on their way from Riverview to the roost, 27 Dec 2022 (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

Thank you, dear readers, for all your help. Your enthusiasm for my blog inspires me to keep writing every day.

Happy New Year to all!

p.s. The caption on the first photo is a quote from my favorite poem about crows. Highly recommended! See the poem here. By Doug Anderson.

(photos by Jeff Cieslak on 27 December 2022 at Riveriew Park)

Down to the Wire: Where Are The Crows?

Crows at a staging location on their way to the roost, Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

19 December 2022

Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count is only 12 days away on 31 December 2022 so my search for Pittsburgh’s winter crow roost has taken on some urgency. I need to find their roost and a good vantage point for counting them, all before New Year’s Eve. Please let me know where you see crows overnight or after sunset, especially next week (after Christmas)!

Several of you responded to my 5 December blog, Help Me Find Pittsburgh’s Winter Crows, with these helpful dates and locations.

  • mid-November: On the Cardello Building near the West End Bridge
  • Dec 8 & 9: Flying over Mt. Oliver/Allentown just before dawn
  • Dec 11 and 14: roosting at City View, PPG Paints Arena and Cambria Hotel area
  • Dec 14: Big flocks flying east to west over Kennard Playground as viewed from Elmore St

I’ve checked from City View to the Hill District but haven’t made it to Mt. Oliver/Allentown yet. This map includes your sightings in orange and mine in yellow.

Pittsburgh crow roost map as of 19 Dec 2022 (screenshot Google map plus markup)

If I’ve learned anything it’s that the crows keep moving their roost, sometimes rather far. They’ve already abandoned the PPG Paints Arena area and have nudged their Hill District roost further north. Where will they be 12 days from now?

The other mystery is that I’ve only seen 5,000 of them. Does Pittsburgh have 10,000 to 20,000 crows as we did in years past? Where are the other 5,000 to 15,000?

Please let me know where you see crows overnight or after sunset. I’ll be out of town over Christmas and am going to miss the next crow move (they will change location when it’s only 7 degrees on Fri & Sat nights). Your help is really crucial.

I hope to count 10,000 to 20,000 crows on New Year’s Eve.

(and yes, I need to check Mt. Oliver/Allentown!)

(photo by Kate St. John, annotated map screenshot from Google Maps, click on the caption to see the original)

Seeing or Hearing Birds Makes Us Happier

Canada warbler, 2011 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

14 December 2022

Just one week away from the winter solstice birds are not abundant in Pittsburgh and are certainly not singing, but it’s still good for us to seek them out. A new study says that the sight or sound of birds makes us happier.

Published in October in Scientific Reports, the study enlisted 1,200+ participants in the UK, EU and US. Using a phone app called Urban Mind, participants were asked three times a day whether they could see or hear birds plus questions about their mental well-being. The data showed that being near birds improved the mental health of people both with and without depression. The good mood lasts 8 hours.

It certainly works for me. I was recently upset by sad news of a friend and could not stop thinking about it. Hours later, still mourning, I went out for a walk. While my brain was busy with sadness a noisy crow flew over and drew my attention, “Hey!” I stopped to look at the crow and my brain shifted gears. Already I felt happier. Thank you, crows.

American crows (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Despite gray December days, take the time to get outdoors or watch your bird feeders for a splash of happiness.

Northern cardinal in winter, Jan 2019 (photo by Steve Gosser)

In the meantime get happy with the sound of a northern cardinal in May.

Read more about the study at Being Around Birds Boosts Our Mental Well-Being Even 8 Hours After Hearing Them.

(photos by Cris Hamilton, Wikimedia Commons and Steve Gosser)

Variable Cloudiness

Rising moon reflected in the Monongahela River at Duck Hollow, 5 Dec 2022, 4:23pm (photo by Kate St. John)

10 December 2022

In December daylight is in short supply and the skies are often gray so clouds have a big effect on our mood in Pittsburgh. This week ranged from brilliantly sunny to thick overcast, from exhilarating to subdued (depressed?) depending on the variable clouds.

Above, on the miraculously clear afternoon of 5 December the moon rose over still water at Duck Hollow. Below, a line of clouds at sunrise painted the sky red on 2 December.

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 2 Dec 2022, 7:16am (photo by Kate St. John)

The next day I was scouting for crows on Mt. Washington when crepuscular rays peeked through the clouds at sunset. Do you see the crows? They’re tiny black dots in the sky.

Crepuscular rays at sunset with crows in flight to Mt Washington’s “Saddle,” 3 Dec 2022, 4:42pm (photo by Kate St. John)

The clouds were so low on 6 December that fog engulfed the top of the Cathedral of Learning. Morela came down to Heinz Chapel’s scaffolding to look for birds in the nearby trees. Do you see her in the middle of the photo?

Peregrine on Heinz Chapel scaffolding, 6 Dec 2022, 12:39pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Last night’s clouds partially obscured the waning moon while moonlight made a colorful halo.

Moon halo, 9 Dec 2022, 7:57pm (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’re back to overcast skies with 85% to 96% cloud cover for the next two days. Alas. No variation until Tuesday.

(photos by Kate St. John)

No Crows With Red Beaks in the Americas

Red-billed chough in China, 10 Jan 2022 (photo by Amaël Borzée via GBIF.org and iNaturalist)

8 December 2022

Back in 2015 I blogged about a Corvid called a red-billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) using the title Crows with Red Beaks? The chough (pronounced “chuff) occurs on mountains and coastal cliffs from the west coasts of Ireland and Britain to southern Europe, North Africa, Central Asia, India and China. It is often found in the Himalayas but never seen in North, South, or Central America.

Sightings of red-billed chough (map from ebird.org, 8 Dec 2022)

However, in the past seven years, 41 North American readers have commented that they have seen a chough in their neighborhood. Sometimes I reply with the unlikeliness of the sighting and in June 2018 I updated the article with suggestions on what they might have seen instead.

A wild chough in the Americas is such rare bird sighting that it would have made international birding news, like the sighting of a Steller’s sea eagle in Maine. Even so the chough sighting comments keep coming in, including two just last month. Still no news though.

Read the original posting and comments at the link below. What do you think they’ve seen? I’m stumped.

(photo from GBIF.org via iNaturalist, map from eBird; click on the captions to see the originals)

Crows Can Think Recursively

American crow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 December 2022

We humans used to think we were very special and very smart because we had language while other species did not. When we learned that other animals had language too our hubris diminished slightly but we still believed in our uniqueness: We were the only species that could think recursively.

In The Recursive Mind (Princeton University Press, 2011) Michael C. Corballis describes “a groundbreaking theory of what makes the human mind unique.”

The Recursive Mind challenges the commonly held notion that language is what makes us uniquely human. In this compelling book, Michael Corballis argues that what distinguishes us in the animal kingdom is our capacity for recursion: the ability to embed our thoughts within other thoughts. “I think, therefore I am,” is an example of recursive thought, because the thinker has inserted himself into his thought. Recursion enables us to conceive of our own minds and the minds of others. It also gives us the power of mental “time travel”—the ability to insert past experiences, or imagined future ones, into present consciousness.

Princeton University Press Book description: The Recursive Mind

Our uniqueness suffered another blow last month when a study published in Science Advances revealed that crows can think recursively, too.

What is recursive thinking and how did crows prove they can do it?

Recursive thinking means “embedding thoughts within other thoughts” like nested Russian dolls.

Nested Russian Matryoshka doll (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For instance, my sentences are often recursive. If you put parentheses around the complete embedded thoughts they can be thrown away without hurting the sentence. As in: “Our uniqueness suffered another blow last month when a study (published in Science Advances) revealed that crows can think recursively, too.”

To test the birds researchers trained two crows to peck pairs of brackets in a center-embedded recursive sequence. They used differently shaped brackets, some in proper order, some not. Like this:

[ { () } ] or { ( [ ) } ]

The brackets make my head hurt. It’s easier to see in this diagram.

If you put brackets around the starting and ending “thoughts” you’ll see a pattern. The brackets fail in the non-recursive example.

According to Scientific American, after the crows were trained to peck bracket pairs, the researchers tested the birds’ ability to spontaneously generate recursive sequences on a new set of symbols. The birds were successful about 40 percent of the time, on par with 3 to 4 year olds in a 2020 study. The crows were better than monkeys who needed extra training to reach that level.

So another unique human trait is toppled by Corvids.

Hooray for crows and ravens!

p.s. Not all the scientists agreed with the study’s conclusions. Read more at Scientific American: Crows Perform Yet Another Skill Once Thought Distinctively Human.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, diagrams by Kate St. John. Click on the caption links to see the originals)

Help Me Find Pittsburgh’s Winter Crows

Crows gathering at dusk in Schenley Park, 21 Jan 2017 (photo by Mike Fialkovich)

5 December 2022

For the past several years I’ve counted Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock for the Christmas Bird Count. Some years I’ve counted as many as 20,000 but last year was a bust. Steady rain, fog, and the fact that the crows moved their roost just before the CBC meant I counted only 220. Aaarrg!

I will not be foiled again this year but I need your help. Where are the crows settling for the night? If you know where they are overnight or after sunset, leave a comment to let me know.

I say “overnight or after sunset” because crows make a big noisy deal out of gathering in large numbers on their way to the roost. Hundreds stage at the tops of trees and shout as more come in. When the sky darkens, they fall silent and leave. For where? That’s the question!

Where are they roosting? (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Last weekend I tried to find them. By 5:00pm on Saturday 3 December I was sure I’d found the roost by watching from Mt Washington at the Mon Incline (my vantage point is the pink V on the map below). Crows staged in the trees in The Saddle on Sycamore Street, then left for a tree-filled hillside near Kirkpatrick Street below Oak Hill, marked in yellow 12/3/22. I counted about 7,500.

Yesterday I went back to Mt. Washington, confident they’d do the same thing and I was wrong! They didn’t gather in the The Saddle; they didn’t roost at Kirkpatrick. Instead they gathered in the Hill District above Bigelow Boulevard. I could barely count 2,000. As I drove home I saw thousands over Bigelow Boulevard but couldn’t count while driving. Aaarrg! My guess at their location is marked in yellow 12/4/22.

Did they end up near Heinz Lofts along the Allegheny River or on Troy Hill as they did a few years ago? (See orange blocks and question mark.)

Locations of Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock on Dec 3 & 4, 2022 at 5pm (mark up screenshot from Google Maps satellite view)

This year Claire Staples and I will count crows together for the CBC on 31 December but I fear the crows will foil us again.

Do you know where the crows are overnight or after sunset in Pittsburgh? If so, please leave a comment with your answer. (We will need this info especially during the week after Christmas.)

p.s. This weekend’s location change can probably be attributed to the weather. Strong west wind vs. weak southwest wind.

  • Sat 3 Dec 5pm: 43 degrees F. West wind gusting over 30 mph. Temperature falling.
  • Sun 4 Dec 5pm: 36 degrees F. SW wind at 6 mph. No wind chill.

(photo and map credits are in the captions; click on the captions to see the originals)