Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

Get Ready for Crows

Crows gathering at dusk, Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

I heard them coming last Friday when 50 crows flew over my neighborhood late in the afternoon.  I heard them again Monday morning before dawn, flying over my house in the dark.

Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock is building.  Right now the number is small but by Halloween we’ll see 1,000 of them at dusk near Pitt’s Alumni Hall. Even more of them in November.

Crows gathering on Alumni Hall, November 2013 (photo by Kate St. John)

By December expect 10,000 crows.  In March they’ll be gone.

Winter’s coming. Get ready for crows.

(photos by Kate St. John, November 2013)

Crows At Work

Carrion crow picking up (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Labor Day, let’s watch some crows at work.

At a theme park in France trained crows are showing humans not to litter.  At least that’s one of the ideas behind teaching crows to pick up cigarette butts at Puy du Fou.

The historical theme park in Les Epresses, France has falconers who conduct live bird shows featuring falcons, owls, vultures and crows.  One day one of the crows picked up litter instead of the prop he was cued for.  The crowd was impressed.

Management was impressed too so now they have six trained crows who pick up cigarette butts in exchange for a treat.

The crows love their job. Their trainer says they’d do it all day if you let them.  Click here or on the image below to watch the crows in action.

Screenshot from AFP video

Read more in this article from Popular Science.

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

Merlin Attack! Raven or Crow?

Merlin attacks a big black corvid at Renews, NL (photo by Trina Anderson)
Merlin attacks a raven at Renews, NL, 10 July 2018 (photo by Trina Anderson)

Last week in Newfoundland our birding tour witnessed an amazing bird interaction when a merlin attacked a big black corvid in the air.  It happened so fast that we had to think hard about the birds’ identities.

Yes the attacker was a merlin —  a small, streaky dark, very fast falcon that made this sound as it attacked. (Xeno-canto XC332445: alarm calls of merlin pair recorded by Pritam Baruah in Churchill, MB, August 2016)

But was the big black bird a crow or a raven?

Fellow traveler Trina Anderson captured the action with her camera. Before we saw her photos we could only identify the corvid by size and behavior.  We decided “raven” based on the relative size of the two birds and the behavior of the raven.

  • Merlins are 2/3 the size of a crow but less than half the size of a raven.  Overhead the merlin was tiny compared to the bird it attacked, so it had to be a raven. Trina’s photos show the size difference.
  • The black bird barely flapped during the interaction and it flipped upside down in flight (see the last photo). Crows flap hard when they’re under attack and they don’t fly upside down.
  • During the fight it was hard to see the diagnostic field mark — the tail — but Trina’s next photo shows the corvid has a wedge-shaped tail. That means “raven.”
Merlin attacks a corvid, Renews, NL, 10 July 2018 (photo by Trina Anderson)
Merlin attacks raven, Renews, NL, 10 July 2018 (photo by Trina Anderson)
Merlin attack! Raven flips upside down, Renews, NL, 10 July 2010 (photo by Trina Anderson)
Merlin attacks! Raven flips upside down, Renews, NL, 10 July 2010 (photo by Trina Anderson)

It’s hard to tell ravens from crows unless you have some practice.  Get tips on how to tell them apart in this 3 minute video from The Raven Diaries: Ravens vs Crows, they’re different!

 

(photos by Trina Anderson. See more of photos of our Newfoundland trip in her Flickr album.)

Do You Like Blue Jays?

Do you like blue jays?

I do, but I often encounter people who don’t.

Everyone agrees that blue jays are pretty but a lot of people don’t like their manner.  When a blue jay enters the room, he takes up a lot of space.

Lesley The Bird Nerd changed her mind about blue jays as she got to know them in her backyard in Canada.  She learned about their intelligence and faithfulness, and how to identify them as individuals.

Watch her video to see what’s cool about blue jays.  Lesley saves the best for last.

 

p.s. Blue jay faces are unique. Here’s Lesley’s video on how she identifies them as individuals.

(video by Lesley The Bird Nerd. Subscribe to her videos here.)

Ravens Tumble!

I love ravens, not only because they’re really smart but because they’re great acrobatic fliers.  They show off to impress each other.

Ravens live a long time — 30 to 40 years — and don’t breed until they’re 2-4 years old.  In their first few years they hang out in flocks, get to know other ravens, and choose a mate for life.

Part of getting to know each other includes playing in the sky.  When they’ve chosen a mate they make courtship flights together — swooping and diving, soaring with wingtips touching, locking toes and tumbling in the sky.

Have you ever seen ravens tumble?    It’s rare to see in western Pennsylvania because we don’t have big flocks of ravens but they’re easy to find in winter in California.

Watch this superbly edited video by Haynes Brooke, filmed at Griffith Park in Hollywood, California.  Go Full Screen in HD for an even better effect.

Ravens tumble!

 

(video by Haynes Brooke on YouTube)

p.s.  Read more about ravens in love in this February 2017 blog from the Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, Colorado: Romance is in the Air for Ravens.

Smart and Cocky

Crow pulls the tail of an immature bald eagle, Delta, BC, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Crow pulls the tail of an immature bald eagle, Delta, BC, Canada (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bald eagles are big and majestic, even the young ones like the immature bird pictured here.

Who’s smart and cocky?   That small black bird in the back:  a crow pulling the bald eagle’s tail.

Sometimes crows are a little too daring but this one is getting away with it.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons taken at Delta, BC, Canada. Click on the image to see the original)

Happy New Year!

Crows harrass a white-tailed kite (photo by stonebird via Flickr, Creative Commons license)
Crows chase a white-tailed kite (photo by stonebird via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Wishing you many birds and spectacular bird moments in 2018.

Happy New Year!

Tomorrow I’ll tell you about my First Bird of 2018.   (Think about sharing yours.)

 

p.s. This photo of crows chasing a white-tailed kite was taken by “stonebird” in October 2017 at Ballona Wetlands, Los Angeles, California.  What a thrill!

(photo by stonebird via Flickr, Creative Commons license)

What Are Crows Saying? Soon We May Know

Crows swirl above the University of Washington, Bothell (photo courtesy Univ Washington, Bothell)
Crows swirl above the University of Washington, Bothell (photo courtesy Univ Washington, Bothell)

Is a flock of 15,000 crows a burden or an opportunity?  At the University of Washington, Bothell it’s an opportunity for a groundbreaking study on crow communication.

Every year from fall to spring, 15,000 crows gather on campus on the way to their roost in the North Creek Wetlands.  These gatherings are their noisiest time of day.

Crows on the practice field at dusk, Univ of Washington, Bothell (photo courtesy Univ Washington, Bothell)
Crows on the practice field at dusk, Univ of Washington, Bothell (photo courtesy Univ Washington, Bothell)

Crows are intelligent so chances are good that they’re saying something meaningful — but no one knows what it is.

Last year UW Bothell biologist Douglas Wacker and acoustics expert Shima Abadi decided to team up and find out.  Working with a group of students, they tested audio equipment and the crows’ reactions to it.  They also wrote software to find the most interesting parts of the crow conversations so researchers don’t have to wade through hours of recorded caws to find the best parts.

Setting up the equipment was not as simple as you’d think.  Crows are wary of changes in their surroundings so audio equipment was introduced carefully on the rooftop of Discovery Hall, a building where the crows congregate.  By the time this photo was taken, the crows were cool with four audio rigs on the roof.

Crows on the roof of Discovery Hall near acoustic equipment (photo courtesy Univ Washington, Bothell)
Crows on the roof of Discovery Hall with acoustic equipment (photo courtesy Univ Washington, Bothell)

This winter Wacker, Abadi and their team of students will learn more about crow communication and pair it with video to determine who’s saying what.

What are the crows saying?  Soon we may know.

 

Read more about the study and see a video of crows on the roof in this article from the University of Washington, Bothell: Rooftop Wiretap Aims to Learn What Crows Gossip About at Dusk.

 

(photos courtesy Crows’ Call at University of Washington, Bothnell)

By The Light Of The Supermoon

Moon rising, crows roosting, Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Moon rising, crows roosting, Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Tonight is the night of the Supermoon, a full moon at perigee that looks 14% bigger and 30% brighter than normal.

What will you see by moonlight on Pitt’s campus tonight, clustered at the treetops like large black leaves?

Thousands of crows.

Despite the weird scarecrow sounds played from the buildings, Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock continues to roost in the mature trees surrounding the Cathedral of Learning and Heinz Chapel.

On Friday I tried to count them by the light of the moon. They were clustered in 30 trees and on the roof of Carnegie Museum. The densest trees held 300 crows.

Crows roosting in the trees near Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)
Crows roosting in the trees near Heinz Chapel, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Could there really be 9,000 crows in the area of Forbes, Fifth, Bellefield and Bigelow Avenues?  Maybe I over counted.  Last year I estimated 230 crows per tree making this total 6,900 crows on December 1 at 6:15pm.

What is their fascination with the University of Pittsburgh?  It isn’t the buildings.  It isn’t the lawn.  It’s the well lit trees.

Crows prefer to roost where they can see danger coming.  The campus is well lit for our protection.  The crows like it, too.

Well lit trees near the Cathedral of Learning with American crows roosting on top, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)
Well lit trees near the Cathedral of Learning, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St.John)

Alumni Hall is a good vantage point for watching crows and the moon rise next to Heinz Chapel.

Stop by this evening to see it all by the light of the supermoon.

 

(photos by Kate St.John)