Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

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 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, 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 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)

Crows and Ravens Are Back in Town

Raven over Dawson Street near Schenley Park, 23 October 2022, 8:30am (photo by Andrea Lavin Kossis)

26 October 2022

During the summer corvids stay home to raise their families but as soon as the breeding season is over they move around. In autumn large flocks of American crows return to Pittsburgh to join the winter roost while a few common ravens show up, alone or in pairs.

This month the crows and ravens are back in town. Since August their populations have gone through several phases.

Crows flying to the roost, Pittsburgh, 16 Oct 2021 (photo by Kate St. John)

Late August: On 30 August a surprising count of 380 fish crows gathered on rooftops at Fifth & Craig while only 12 American crows were present that evening.

September: By 6 September fish crow numbers dropped from 30 to zero. American crow numbers rose through the hundreds. No ravens.

October so far: On 10 October a high count 620 American crows flew past “the doorknob” water tower at dusk. By late October no crows were counted because they changed their route. However we now see and hear ravens!

The “doorknob” water tower at dusk, Upper Hill, October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Ravens in town?

Crows migrate. Adult ravens stay home year round. However, young ravens go wandering until they reach sexual maturity at three years old. From fall through early spring a handful of these ravens visit Pittsburgh.

Last Sunday 23 October Andrea Lavin Kossis saw two ravens on Dawson Street dining on some “delicious roadkill.” The pair even had something to say about it.

Brock! Brock!

p.s. In December I’ll enlist your help to find the crow roost in time for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count.

(photos by Andrea Lavin Kossis and Kate St. John)

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

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.)