Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

Raven Gets Creative

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.

(video by dougbrown47 on YouTube)

Odd Name With A History

Red-billed chough in flight, Cornwall (image from Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Red-billed choughs in Cornwall (photo by Andrew on Flickr, CC license)

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).

(left) City of Canterbury coat of arms (photo by Julian Walker via Flickr CC license)
(right) Arms of Petre/Peter of Bowhay, Dunchideock, Devon (via Wikimedia Commons)

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:

<gh> voiceless velar fricative (audio from Wikimedia Commons)

The name chough, now pronounced CHUF, originally mimicked the bird’s sound.  Can you hear the old resemblance in these chough calls?

Red-billed chough (audio by Harry Hussey on xeno canto XC408367)

In the 20th century Cornish choughs disappeared from England though they remained in Ireland, Wales, western Scotland and the Isle of Man.  In 2001 choughs returned to nest in Cornwall.

Nowadays you can see and hear them at Cornwall’s cliffs, calling “Chough!” as they fly.

Red-billed choughs take to the air, Cornwall (photo by Paul Gillard via Flickr, CC license)

(photo and audio credits are in the captions. Click on the captions to see the originals.)

(*) <gh> has a throaty sound in Scottish English.  Elsewhere chough is sometimes said “shuf.” 

Crows Causing Trouble?

Crow warning sign in
Fukuzumi-cho, Eniwa, Hokkaido, Japan (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

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?

Crows abroad:

The caption for the Wikimedia photo above says “A sign warning people about crows in Fukuzumi-cho, Eniwa, Hokkaido.” It’s probably referring to jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos), also called large-billed crows, a common bird in Japanese cities.

Large-billed crows are famous for causing problems in Japan.

So what is this sign about?  I can’t read Japanese but maybe you can. Here’s a closeup.

A sign warning people about crows in Fukuzumi-cho, Eniwa, Hokkaido

If you know what this says, please leave a comment with the answer.  I would love to know what the crows are up to!

UPDATE:  See the Comments below for two translations.

(two sizes of the same photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

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.

p.s. Here’s what they were like last year By the Light of the Supermoon.

(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)