Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

Let Me Help You Out of That

Australian magpie, looking at it (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 March 2022

Sometimes an experiment doesn’t work as planned but the results are far better than expected.

Researchers wanted to track Australian magpies (Gymnorhina tibicen), a very social species that lives in groups of 2-12 individuals on permanent territories. Rather than use the typical long-lasting harness that requires recapturing the bird to collect the datapack, they designed a harness that would release when exposed to a magnet placed at a feeding station. Would the new harness design work? The first step was to try it on a few magpies and see.

Illustration of novel harness for Australian magpies with magnetic release (image from Australian Field Ornithology 2022, 39, 7–11 http://dx.doi.org/10.20938/afo39007011)

Researchers led by Joel Crampton captured five magpies at Pacific Paradise, Queensland, banded them and fitted each one with a GPS harness. Then they followed the birds to see the harness release at the feeding station.

Each banded bird immediately tried to remove the harness but it was too well designed for that to work. Instead the unexpected occurred. Unbanded magpies came to the rescue.

On the day of trapping, one individual was observed attempting to remove its own tracker but was then approached and aided by another juvenile (without a tracker or coloured leg-band) once again pecking the harness part of the tracker. The tracker remained but, within the next 10 minutes, an adult female (also without a tracker or leg-band) proceeded to approach and successfully pecked the harness at various points such that the tracker came off the fitted juvenile within c. 10 minutes. This first Magpie that had been tagged had its GPS device removed within 1 h.

Australian Field Ornithology: Australian Magpies Gymnorhina tibicen cooperate to remove tracking devices

This happened over and over again until none of the banded birds had trackers. Here’s a video of the magpies helping each other.

This finding was unexpected but far better than the original experiment. It was the first time anyone had seen rescue behaviour among Australian magpies.

To our knowledge, this is the first study to report the conspecific removal of GPS trackers, and should be considered when planning future tracking studies especially on highly social species.

Australian Field Ornithology: Australian Magpies Gymnorhina tibicen cooperate to remove tracking devices

“Here,” say the magpies to each other. “Let me help you out of that.”

p.s. A tip of the hat to Michelle Kienholz for pointing out this study.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, diagram and video from Australian Field Ornithology: Australian Magpies Gymnorhina tibicen cooperate to remove tracking devices; click on the captions to see the originals)

Where There Are No Crows or Jays

Pearly-eyed thrasher on Guana Island, British Virgin Islands (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

24 February 2022

Corvids [crows, jays, magpies] occupy virtually every terrestrial habitat on Earth, including Arctic tundra, arid deserts, urban streets, and tropical rainforest. Having likely dispersed around the world over millions of years from an Australasian core, it is odd that they never reached New Zealand or Patagonia or disappeared from them both.

Birds of the World: Corvidae account

It’s hard to imagine a place without any crows or jays but it is true of the southern end of South America, New Zealand and quite a few Caribbean and Pacific islands. I learned this seven years ago when I visited a place that has none of them: St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands.

In the absence of intelligent omnivorous corvids, other birds fill their niche. The all-purpose crow/jay/predator at St. John is the pearly-eyed thrasher (Margarops fuscatus) …

… an aggressive, opportunistic omnivore that feeds primarily on large insects, but also feeds on fruits and berries, and will occasionally eat lizards, frogs, small crabs and other bird’s eggs and nestlings.

Wikipedia: Pearly-eyed Thrasher account

He acts like a jay, hunts like a corvid, and eats like a crow. I think he looks more aggressive than a blue jay. Maybe it’s the pearly eye.

Pearly-eyed thrasher at St. John, USVI (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Throw Back Thursday, learn about this thrasher in the corvid niche in this 2015 article:

What’s New With Pittsburgh’s Crows?

Crow digs in to a baguette (photo by Henry McLin via Flickr Creative Commons license)

27 January 2022

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock hasn’t been in Oakland and Shadyside for months but they’ve been making a splash on the North Side lately.

On 23 January Cindy Pomorski reported, “I have heard and seen them 2 mornings this week in the trees in the wooded area near the DL Clark building,” on the North Shore near Heinz Field.

That same day crows were photographed on the roof of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette headquarters across the Heinz Field parking lot from DL Clark.

And on Tuesday 25 January they hung out at the Heinz Field scoreboard in the snow.

How about those crows? Have you seen them lately?

Tell me about it.

(photo by Henry McLin via Flickr Creative Commons license. This cool crow photo was taken in Hanover, PA, not in Pittsburgh.)

Finding Food in the Cold

Snow scene on 19 January 2022

22 January 2022

I’ve often noticed that in winter there are more birds in the city than the countryside. Though we may not have “quality” birds we make up for it in quantity with large numbers of fruit-eating birds drawn to our ornamental trees.

In the past two weeks hundreds of American robins have been feasting in Oakland. Some of the fruits were inedible until the deep freeze softened them so the robins circled back to finish the Bradford pears last weekend. This week they started on pyracantha berries and the red fruits of this (hawthorn?) tree next to the Cathedral of Learning.

Was half the fruit wasted when birds and squirrels knocked it out of the trees?

Look closely and you can see that deer walked among the fallen fruit. They must have crossed Forbes or Fifth Avenue after dark to browse on the Cathedral of Learning lawn.

Nearby, the sweetgum balls were coated in snow on Monday, all melted by Wednesday.

American goldfinches arrived to pull seeds out of the balls. Some fell on the snow.

And a crow walked by to check it out.

Birds are finding food in the cold.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Found The Crows!

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock flies past South Oakland on 14 Dec 2021 (photo by Mary DeVaughn)

13 January 2022

Driving home yesterday from northern Pennsylvania I reached the edge of Downtown near the PPG Arena parking lot(*) at 5:35pm. Night was falling but the overcast sky was still lit.

As I drove up the ramp to Bigelow Boulevard three huge flocks of crows burst off the Flag Plaza hilltop (at right below) and swirled overhead to the roof of The Pennsylvanian (left), back and forth.

Location of Pittsburgh’s winter crows on 12 Jan 2022 at dusk, swirling from The Pennsylvanian (left) to the Flag Plaza hilltop (right) (image of Bigelow Blvd ramp from Google Streetview)

When I reached this part of the ramp (below) I could hear poot landing my car. The dark sky was thick with crows.

Location of Pittsburgh’s winter crows on 12 Jan 2022 at dusk, swirling from The Pennsylvanian (left) to the Flag Plaza hilltop (right) (image of Bigelow Blvd ramp from Google Streetview)

It was a scene like this screenshot from Gerry Devinney’s mid-December video, probably 3,000 to 5,000 crows. (Click here to see Gerry’s video.)

Crows swirl near the mid-Oakland roost, 18 December 2021 (screenshot from video by Gerry Devinney on Vimeo)

I was lucky to find them in another part of town after the crows were a No Show at the Christmas Bird Count. It’s ironic that they are in the same place where the black bear was found before Christmas. Perhaps they are roosting in the Strip District.

View from Flag Plaza in March 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

If I visit Flag Plaza at dusk will I be able to count them? Nope. Too close. I will have to find a place with a much longer view.

UPDATE ON 22 JAN 2022: They are at the Post-Gazette.

p.s. (*) The PPG Paints Arena parking lot on Centre Ave at Washington Place is torn up by construction on its way to becoming something else. It is the old site of the Civic Arena.

(photos by Mary DeVaughn, Google StreetView, Gerry DeVinney (screenshot) and Kate St. John; click on the captions to see the originals)

Crows Were a No Show at the Christmas Count

Trees at dusk and NO CROWS (photo by Kate St. John in 2017)

6 January 2022

Year after year we’ve counted thousands of crows — up to 20,058! — during Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count so we were stunned when the annual count on 1 January 2022 yielded zero (0!) at the South Oakland roost and only seven crows nearby at dusk. Roosting crows were a No Show at the CBC. Where were they? And why?

The best way to count Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is to find a good vantage point and count them as they stream into the roost. Before Christmas they roosted in South Oakland, confirmed by my count of at least 5,200 crows near Magee Hospital on 8 December. However on Count Day a number of things went wrong.

Crow counters usually work as a team but my teammate Claire Staples was injured in mid-December and is still recuperating. I tried to recruit others but no one jumped at the chance because …

The weather was warm but extremely rainy and foggy. All the high vantage points were enshrouded in fog so I went to Dan Marino Field in South Oakland where the crows fly by. It poured! I was soaked by relentless rain for an hour while I counted five crows overhead and two cawing in the neighborhood. Yet 220 American robins pulled worms from the mud and sang in the rain. As I drove home I checked the roosting trees near Magee Hospital. No crows anywhere!

Apparently crows change their roosting habits in heavy rain.

Were they still flying to South Oakland? As a partial answer I counted from the roof of my building on 2 January for 20 minutes. In the distance 1,140 crows flew toward South Oakland. Less than I expected. Have they split the roost into several locations?

The crows are here somewhere. Have you seen them? Where?

UPDATE: Gerry Devinney filmed a huge flock of crows near the Petersen Events center on 18 December. See his video here.

On Throw Back Thursday here’s a look back at the Good Old Days of 2012 when it was possible to count 20,000 crows.

How Can You Tell It’s A Fish Crow?

Fish crow in Mississauga (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

19 December 2021

Fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) are a relatively recent addition to the corvid species found in western Pennsylvania. Most people don’t realize they’re here because fish crows look nearly identical to American crows (Corvus brachyrhyncos).

But now that it’s Christmas Bird Count Season (Tues 14 Dec 2021 through Wed 5 January 2022) we have to identify the fish crows among Pittsburgh’s winter flock of American crows. How can you tell when you see a fish crow? The only reliable way is by the sound of his voice.

We all know that the American crow says “Caw! Caw!”

American crow (Covus brachyrhyncos) from Xeno Canto # XC626214

The fish crow sounds different with his “baby” voice. Sometimes he says “Uh oh.”

Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus) from Xeno Canto # XC459772

Get some practice listening to fish crows in Zack Chen’s video.

Good luck counting them, though. You can tell fish crows are present by sound but it’s really hard to count the voices!

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; embedded video by Zack Chen on YouTube)

The Crows Saw It First

American crows watch from a roof (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 December 2021

If something doesn’t look right, crows are quick to point it out and warn each other.

Ten years ago Pittsburgh’s winter flock saw something very disturbing and circled above it in the half light before dawn. “Watch out! Watch out! It’s dead! Watch out!”

Three hours later a person discovered the disturbing scene. It prompted an investigation.

The crows saw it first. Here’s the story.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Crows Recognize Their Friends

American crow at Laval University, Quebec City (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 November 2021

Smart crows are naturally wary around humans. Though most people don’t even notice birds, crows know that some humans are malicious.

Crows notice us noticing them. They watch us back while they assess whether we’re dangerous or beneficial. They learn the faces of enemies so they can recognize them later. They also remember their friends.

A friendship with crows can run both ways when the crows bring gifts.

An “enemy” can become a friend if he’s consistently kind and trustworthy, as was this mailman in Vancouver, BC.

Peanuts were the treat that turned an “enemy” into a friend.

Crow with peanuts in Newfoundland (photo by Felip1 via Flickr Creative Commons license)

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Felip1 via Flickr Creative commons license. Embedded videos from YouTube. Click on the captions to see the originals)

Appreciating Crows

American crow in Castle Shannon, Pittsburgh (photo by Christopher Bailey via Wikimedia Commons)

21 November 2021

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has been avoiding my North Oakland neighborhood for three weeks now and I miss them. When I see them in the late afternoon, if I see them at all, they are flying very high in a steady stream. Where are going? Does anyone know?

The only crows I see are too few or too high for me to appreciate their raucous calls and aerial antics so I enjoyed them this recent video from #LesleytheBirdNerd. Listen to a crow Meow!

Like the video? Subscribe to Lesley’s channel at https://www.youtube.com/c/LesleytheBirdNerd/

If you know where Pittsburgh’s crows are roosting (spending the night), please leave a comment below. I’d love to find them.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)