Crows are common in the city but ravens are rare so I was surprised to hear a raven this week in Schenley Park. It called and circled overhead waiting for its companion to arrive. “Brrrock! Brrrock!” When the second raven caught up they flew away together.
I see ravens in town about twice a year but I only hear them make the Brrrock call. If I lived where common ravens (Corvus corax) are common, I’d hear their wide variety of sounds.
This video from Anchorage, Alaska gives you an idea of the ravens’ vocal range. He starts with Brrrock. Then he gets creative.
In the U.K. and Ireland there’s a bird like a crow with a red bill, red legs, and a very odd name.
Red-billed choughs are found in Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but the smallest race, the Cornish chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax), is endemic to the British Isles.
Centuries ago red-billed choughs were common on the south coast of England where they were revered enough to appear in heraldry. The City of Canterbury’s coat of arms (at left below) includes three choughs from Saint Thomas Becket’s coat of arms. (Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who was murdered in the Cathedral in 1170 by followers of King Henry II.) A second example comes from the less famous Peter of Bowhay whose arms contain a single chough (at right).
The word “chough” looks odd because the gh sound has gone out of use. In most English dialects it’s now silent (light or neighbor) or pronounced “f” (enough or laugh). Here’s what the <gh> used to sound like:
The name chough, now pronounced CHUF, originally mimicked the bird’s sound. Can you hear the old resemblance in these chough calls?
Sometimes crows can’t help it. They cause trouble at home and abroad.
Crows At Home:
Last week Pittsburgh’s growing winter crow population — composed of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) and a few fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) — caused trouble at the University of Pittsburgh.
Andrew Mumma reported that the population roosting on Pitt’s campus exploded Wednesday night, October 17, resulting in slippery, stinky sidewalks on Thursday morning.
Pitt responded Thursday evening by playing the “Crow Scare” tape near Clapp Hall. (Click here to hear it.) When Karen Lang left work around 7pm she saw a peregrine falcon, maybe Terzo, dive bombing the crow zone at Alumni Hall. Did the crows annoy him? Or was it the kakking noise on the tape?
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.
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.”
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!
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.