Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

Crow in a White Vest

Pied crow crowing (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

4 February 2024

Any day with a crow in it is full of promise.

Crows: Encounters with the Wise Guys, by Candace Savage

Crows are a favorite theme of mine so I was pleased that we encountered Africa’s most common crow at nearly every birding site on our trip in southern Africa. We saw only one Corvus species, the pied crow (Corvus albus). He wears a white vest.

Pied crows are intermediate in size between crows and ravens and are closely enough related to Africa’s dwarf raven, the Somali crow, that they can hybridize. However their behavior is closer to that of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

Pied crows on left, American crows on right (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Wikipedia says the same of both of them.

The pied crow‘s behavior is more typical of the Eurasian carrion crow.

American crows are the New World counterpart to the carrion crow and the hooded crow of Eurasia. They all occupy the same ecological niche.

Both are smart and inquisitive.

The pied crow’s voice is intermediate between crow and raven.

Typically we saw only one or two crows at a time except at dawn when they left their roost. Then my highest count was eight.

Pied crow in flight, composite of same crow (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The main difference between pied and American crows appears to be that pied crows don’t migrate and are less gregarious. As far as I know they never aggregate into huge flocks.

Africans would be surprised, and perhaps horrified, to see Pittsburgh’s flock of 20,000 American crows in winter.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Counting Crows: 15,000

Crows coming in to roost at Robinson Ext & Vera, 31 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

31 December 2023

Success! Last night, Saturday 30 December, our team counted 15,000 crows at their roost on Robinson Ext and Brackenridge Streets during the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC). It was a big challenge compared to last year when we could stand in one place and count 20,000 flying by in the distance. This year we had to chase them for two hours, texting each other with updates, until the crows finally picked a spot. In darkness and rain we think we were unable to see another 5,000 but we can’t count what we can’t see. So the official count is 15,000.

Carol Steytler, Sue Faust and I did a dry run on Friday night. That evening the western stream flew over the Allegheny River to stage at Cliff Street before moving on. My brief video shows how impossible it is to count them before they settle.

video by Kate St. John

That night we followed about half the flock to Wylie Avenue near Lawson, but where did the rest of them go? Fortunately it was just a dry run before Count Day.

On Saturday night Claire Staples joined us for the CBC and we split up to find the crows. Sue waited for them on Arcena Street but not a single crow came to the bluff above Bigelow. Carol found them staging near Wylie and Herron but when Claire and I caught up we could tell the crows were going to leave; there are no streetlights on that patch of woods.

By 5:30pm the crows had picked a roost and we gathered near Vera Street to watch them swirl overhead in the rain. We counted them in trees and on the Sports Dome but could not see how many were on nearby roofs and other places out of sight, so the official count is 15,000. Maybe next year we’ll count all of them.

Thank you to the intrepid team — Carol Steytler, Sue Faust and Claire Staples — who braved rain, cold, and darkness to count the crows. We were up for the challenge and we found almost all of them. And thanks to my readers for your tips and sightings. We’re done now until next year. 🙂

And we’ve learned a valuable lesson: If you want to count crows, don’t expect to find them in the same place or even flying the same route every night.

(photo and video by Kate St. John)

Only 3 Days To Find the Crows!

American crow closeup (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

27 December 2023

This Saturday, 30 December, is Pittsburgh’s annual Christmas Bird Count when we confirm the number of crows that come to town for the winter. Usually the count is 20,000 so after they skunked me three years ago (I counted only 220!) it’s been my mission to find the roost and count them all.

Last week I was confident that, thanks to you, we had found the crows. Carol Steytler saw them roosting near Heinz Lofts on 16 December so I went down there on the 19th — before I left town for the holiday — and saw more than 10,000 streaming in from Troy Hill to Heinz Lofts. I thought the Crow Count was going to be easy.

Hah! The crows have something else in mind.

Crows roosting at Allegheny River near Heinz Lofts, 7 Feb 2021, 7:40pm (photo by Kate St. John)

On Sunday 24 December Carol told me the crows were GONE! They weren’t near Heinz Lofts and when she drove around yesterday from 5-7pm she couldn’t find them anywhere!

Are we going to let 20,000 crows avoid the Count? No!

If you see a steady stream of crows at dusk please tell me where you saw them and where they were going.

Crows streaming past near Troy Hill (photo by Jeff Cieslak)

If you see crows at sunset making a racket in the trees, please tell me where they were!

There are only 3 days left until Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird Count and (yikes!) I’m still out of town. Please help me find the crows!

Time’s Running Out: Where Are The Crows?

Crows flying to the roost at sunset near Wilkins Ave, Oct 2020 (photo by Joanne Tyzenhouse)

18 December 2023

For the past several years Claire Staples and I have counted crows for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC). In a good year we count 20,000. In a bad year, 220. Stunning, isn’t it. The difference is not in the actual number of crows. It’s whether we can find them.

Please help. Let me know where you see crows overnight or after sunset, especially next week (after Christmas)!

You would think that 20,000 crows would be hard to miss but in late December they get tricky. Just before the CBC the crows change their roost several times or they split the roost and, suddenly, we can’t find half of them.

Several of you responded to Why Do 1000’s of Crows Roost in Town? with dates and locations. Your reports helped me figure out the crows moved on 11 December.

  • Dec 10: Up until Dec 11 Tom saw them roosting near the VA Hospital in Oakland.
  • Dec 11: Jeff Cieslak saw 1000s flying over the North Side parallel to Allegheny River, heading upstream.
  • Dec 12: I counted 4,000 flying west-southwest over Schenley Park’s golf course at dusk. Where were they going?
  • Dec 13: Sue Faust reported them hanging out on the North Side and flying over the Strip District at dusk.
  • Dec 16: Carol Steytler counted as many as 10,000 roosting upstream of the 16th Street Bridge across from Heinz Lofts (across the river?).
Twilight over the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh. Crows swirl near Heinz chimneys, 6 Feb 2021, 5:50pm, taken at 25th St (photo by Kate St. John)

Carol’s 16 December sighting matches a roost they used back in February 2021 (photo above) but they didn’t stay there long and I fear they won’t stay now. And this is only half of them.

Where will the crows be 12 days from now?

I know I’m going to miss their next move because I’ll be out of town December 21-28. Your help is really crucial. Please let me know where you see crows overnight or after sunset. Let me know where you see a big flock swirling. Claire & I also need to find a good vantage point for counting them.

Fingers crossed that we’ll successfully count the crows on Saturday 30 December.

Why Do 1000’s of Crows Roost in Town?

Three American crows (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 December 2023

When 20,000 crows come to Pittsburgh for the winter, they have to sleep somewhere and they inevitably make a mess. Why do they roost near us where the mess will get on our nerves? Why don’t they sleep in the woods? Let’s take a look the reasons crows choose one location over another when it’s time to sleep.

Crows have a few simple requirements for a roost and they all have to come together at the same place. Safety is a big one. Crows want:

  1. Tall trees for roosting
  2. Warmth when it’s cold
  3. No great horned owls!
  4. Safety in numbers
  5. Night lights. Lots of them.
  6. White noise at the roost
  7. No harassment from humans

1. Tall trees for roosting: Crows prefer to roost at the very top of mature trees. They perch on the highest twigs that support their weight.

Crows coming to the roost, Pittsburgh, 2017 (photo by Sharon Leadbitter)

2. Warmth when it’s cold: When the weather is well below freezing trees are too exposed for a good night’s sleep so crows may choose rooftops instead. Cities are warmer than the surrounding countryside due to the urban heat island effect.

Crows on the roof (photo courtesy Crows’ Call at University of Washington, Bothnell)

3. No great horned owls! Crows are terrified of great horned owls who can hunt them in the dark. They prefer places that great horned owls avoid.

Great horned owl (photo by Alan Wolf via Flickr, CC license)

4. Safety in numbers: Crows sleep in a crowd so that someone’s always awake to watch for owls. It also lowers the odds of an individual being eaten.

Crows asleep near Heinz Chapel by the light of the Supermoon, Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

5. Night lights. Lots of them: Crows like to sleep with the lights on. It’s easier to watch for owls when you can see them coming. There are no nightlights in the woods.

Crows in a tree on Thackeray Ave, Pittsburgh, 2011 (photo by Peter Bell)

6. White noise at the roost: In addition to night lights, crows want white noise at the roost(*), the sound of running water or traffic. This location along Fifth Avenue at the University of Pittsburgh combines all their requirements in one place. Except that the mess bothers humans.

Crows roosting along Fifth Avenue in the trees at Pitt, Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

7. No harassment from humans: The perfect roost is usually near humans but crows make an enormous mess that people have to clean up. When the crows wear out their welcome, people figure out ways to get them to leave. This includes loud abrupt noises such as clappers and bangers, flashing lights, and harassment by falconers’ birds.

Clappers used to disperse crows (photo courtesy Alex Toner, Univ of Pittsburgh)
screenshot from video Falconry moves the crows in Portland, OR

Now that we know what crows want at a roost we can figure out where they’re likely to be. Convincing them to leave is much easier to do before they land. 😉

(*) p.s. Why do crows want white noise when they sleep? No one has explained it but I have a theory that great horned owls avoid white noise. Owls need to hear their prey when they’re hunting and white noise makes that impossible.

Seen This Week

Sky reflected on Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 8 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

9 December 2023

There were just hints of ice floating on Panther Hollow Lake yesterday morning when the water reflected blue sky and whispy clouds.

Yesterday was unusually beautiful after the tumult of hail and thunder during the Steelers game last Sunday 3 December. After the storm a double rainbow glowed in the east.

Double rainbow on 3 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The pot of gold seemed to be on Morewood Avenue.

The pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is at Morewood Avenue, 3 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you look closely in the double rainbow photo you can see crows flying just above the trees.

Crows have become less reliable in my neighborhood since they moved the roost about a month ago. When they came through after the storm I went out to see them, counted 3,000 and recorded a video.

Crows flying toward the roost at dusk, 3 December 2023, Shadyside, Pittsburgh (video by Kate St .John)

Only 3 WEEKS until Pittsburgh’s Christmas Bird (Crow!) Count. The crows are getting tricky. Keep me posted! Thanks to Carol S for reporting them at North Shore last night.

p.s. If the reflection in the top photo is puzzling, here’s another perspective.

Sky and bridge reflected in Panther Hollow Lake, Schenley Park, 8 Dec 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Where Do 10,000 – 20,000 Crows Go During The Day?

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)
Crows preparing to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

19 November 2023

As I wrote in Trying To Move The Crows last Thursday, Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock now numbers 6,000 to 10,000 and will build to 20,000 by the end of December. Their final flight to the roost every evening is so impressive that I included a video taken from my apartment window. Annie commented, “Your video is incredible! But where do the crows go during the day? And does morning look the same as they leave?”

In the morning crows leave the roost before sunrise but not nearly in the numbers I see at dusk, probably because most of them leave when it’s too dark to see Black Birds in a Black Sky. They are tiny silhouettes in this sunrise photo.

Sunrise with crows (tiny dots) heading east, 2 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

The crows fan out in all directions and travel 6 to 50 miles one way — in stages — to find food. Flocks of 10 to 50 go to neighborhoods on trash day.

A crow on Garbage Day (photo by Joe Loong via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Photographer Sue Thompson said these crows were a day too early. It wasn’t Garbage Day yet.

Crows a day too early for Garbage Day (photo by Sue Thompson via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Some groups visit restaurants and shopping centers to explore the dumpsters.

Crows at a dumpster (photo by Edna Winti via Flickr Creative Commons license)

But for a really big feast crows go to landfills. There are at least seven large landfills within 30 miles of Pittsburgh’s crow roost. The nearest are 8-15 miles “as the crow flies.”

Landfills within 25 miles of Pittsburgh, PA (annotated Google map)

In mid-afternoon they start to head back in stages. At first there are just a few crows per flock.

Crows (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They pause along the way in ever greater numbers as they combine into boisterous, noisy flocks. At the staging areas they meet new friends, greet neighbors, and exchange information about their day. It’s “The Bar Scene For Crows.”

Crows hanging out at a staging location (photo by Kate St. John)

The last stage is a only few blocks from the roost. Often they fly in after dark.

(video by Claire Staples)

And the next morning they start all over again. If people rousted them from the prior night’s roost they’ll pick a new one and change the final staging area close to the new location. Crows can be flexible.

p.s. If you did not see the video taken from my apartment window at Trying To Move The Crows, check it out here:

Trying To Move The Crows

Crows roosting at Pitt by the light of the supermoon, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

16 November 2023

Crow news this week! from Phillip Rogers:

Hi all! There are hundreds (probably thousands?) of crows that roost every night outside the Cathedral of Learning at Pitt. Coming in at sunrise it feels like a scene straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds movie. This evening I saw a man (facilities or groundskeeping employee?) using loud clapping and flashing lights to try to get the birds to leave (short video below). The sidewalks all around are littered with droppings, which is presumably why they want the birds gone.

— Phillip Rogers comment to PittsBirder Chat
Pitt tries to move the crows, 13 Nov 2023 (video by Phillip Rogers)

I remembered a similar episode 10 years ago when Pitt used bird distress sounds to scare the crows. Back then it worked …

… but crows are really smart. They soon figured out the recordings are fake and promptly ignored them.

By 2020 Pitt had to change tactics. Crows don’t like sudden loud noises and flashing lights when they’re trying to sleep so they made hinged wooden clappers to scare the crows.

Clappers used to disperse crows (photo courtesy Alex Toner, Univ of Pittsburgh)

The clappers worked for a while … but crows are persistent so this week Pitt had to add flashing lights.

This tug of war with winter crows happens every year when thousands come to Pittsburgh to spend the winter. By mid-November the crows wear out their welcome in Oakland and are “encouraged” to move to other locations.

Right now there are 6,000 to 10,000 crows trying to sleep at Pitt and until they stop roosting there, I live in their flyway. This video from early Nov 2020 shows what it was like outside my apartment on 5 November.

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock flying to the roost, 2 & 4 Nov 2020 (video by Kate St. John)

By the end of the year the crow flock will number 20,000 and the roost will have moved at least once or twice. Where will they be on 30 December when I have to count crows for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count? I’ll need to find out.

(credits are in the captions)

Seen This Week

Eastern screech-owl, Frick Park, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

11 November 2023

Songbird migration is quiet now and birds, when they’re found, are in mixed species flocks.

On 7 November, Charity Kheshgi and I encountered agitated golden-crowned kinglets, tufted titmice and dark-eyed juncos but it took us a while to find what they were upset about. This red morph screech-owl was hiding above our heads in a small oak.

Golden-crowned kinglet, Frick Park, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by Charity Kheshgi)

An exception to the mixed species flocking rule is our “murder” of crows. My guess is that Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is 90% American and 10% fish crows, but who can tell? They look alike.

In late afternoon crows stage in the trees in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, then head west at sunset. 6,000 to 10,000 pass by my building on their way to the roost.

Crows staging in Squirrel Hill just before dusk, 10 Nov 2023 (photo by Stephen Tirone)

At sunset black birds in a darkened sky are impossible to photograph but it’s another story at sunrise. Click on the photo below for a closeup of crows in the brightening sky.

Sunrise with crows, 2 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Leaves littered the ground this week and the air was filled with the sound of leaf blowers. 🙁

Fallen red maple leaf, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

Most of the trees were bare in Schenley Park by Friday 10 November.

Bare tree touched by sun, Schenley Park, 3 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)
Most of the trees are bare, 10 Nov 2023 (photo by Kate St. John)

And finally, a reminder that the rut is still in progress and deer are crossing roads. This duo showed up at a Squirrel Hill polling place on Election Day at a place surrounded by roads. So watch out.

Deer at the polling place on Election Day, 7 Nov 2023 (photo by John via Mardi Isler)

(credits are in the captions)

How High Can An Eagle Fly? Can A Raven Follow Him?

A raven harasses V, the new male bald eagle at Hays, 18 Oct 2023 (photo by Jim McCollum)

24 October 2023

On 18 October while Jim McCollum was taking photos of the Hays bald eagles a raven showed up and began to harass the new male eagle, nicknamed “V.”

10/18 – The new fella went for a fly about and got jumped by a Raven. The Raven chased him all over the sky. This guy needs to work on his fighting skills.

Jim McCollum -> 40 Acres a.k.a. Hays Woods Enthusiasts
A raven harasses V, the new male bald eagle at Hays, 18 Oct 2023 (photo by Jim McCollum)
A raven harasses V, the new male bald eagle at Hays, 18 Oct 2023 (photo by Jim McCollum)

Jim’s photos were shared to the 40 Acres a.k.a. Hays Woods Enthusiasts Facebook group where Dave Dutzik remembered a story about crows that piqued my interest.

A little tidbit I read recently. Crows will lite on eagles backs and peck at their necks. The eagles don’t fight back just soar higher and higher until for lack of oxygen the crow passes out and falls off the eagles back. I’m not sure about the validity but it’s a good story!

Comment by Dave Dutzik at 40 acres Facebook group

Is it a true story? Let’s look into it.

At what altitude does lack of oxygen affect birds?

Birds are the champions of high altitude and can breed and exercise (fly) at altitudes that kill humans. Some species are so well adapted to high altitude that they fly as high as a jet, over the Himalayas where humans die without supplemental oxygen. Even our North American songbirds fly high …

Migrating birds in the Caribbean(*) are mostly observed around 10,000 feet, although some are found half and some twice that high. Generally long-distance migrants seem to start out at about 5,000 feet and then progressively climb to around 20,000 feet.

Stanford Birds: How fast and high can birds fly

(*) Migrating birds in the Caribbean = warblers!

Is lack of oxygen the reason why the crow leaves the eagle? No. The crow leaves because the eagle is no longer a threat or because the crow is tired.

How high can a crow, a raven and a bald eagle fly?

So the better question is: How high can a raven fly? Can a bald eagle follow him?

For more information see High-altitude champions: birds that live and migrate at altitude and this vintage article.

(photos by Jim McCollum)