Now that it’s mid December Pittsburgh’s winter crow flock has chosen favorite roosts but continues to adjust the location in subtle ways, especially when it’s cold.
In October they switched sites abruptly — here today, gone tomorrow. In November they focused in Oakland and tried for Schenley Farms. On the 18th I watched the flock hover from four blocks away, then heard a distant BANG! a single banger firework. The crows made a U turn in the sky and didn’t come back.
This month the flock has split into several roosts including rooftops and trees at Bouquet and Sennott, at Fifth and Thackeray, and perhaps at University Prep in the Hill District. On 11 December I followed them to the Hill where I found them staging at Rampart Street, Herron near Milwaukee, and University Prep.
But I don’t know where they sleep. I plan to count them on 26 December for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count so if you see them sleeping somewhere let me know!
Meanwhile, the flock’s incursion into Oakland prompted this tongue-in-check tourism video by the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy interns, posted on 20 November.
The crows and I recognize a lot of places in the video. 😉
When thousands of crows come to town for the winter what do they find to eat?
Every morning they wake up in the city and spread out during the day to find food near and far. Some travel 10-20 miles to glean from fields and landfills. Others raid dumpsters, prowl parking lots, or poke holes in garbage bags waiting for neighborhood collection.
Up to 65% of an urban crow’s diet is made up of human food and we sure make a lot of it available. Nothing is faster than fast food, especially fries.
Some crows like to dunk their fries.
They are not daunted by paper bags. In this video by Quiscalus a flock of fish crows fights over a bag of fries until the herring gulls take over. I’ve seen this happen in Virginia Beach.
Early November is the time when Pittsburgh’s huge winter flock decides where to sleep for the next three months but no site is large enough to house 20,000 crows. Right now the roost is in flux as the sub-flocks collect and break apart, testing their options.
On Sunday 8 November they came to Oakland from all directions — eastern suburbs, north+west suburbs, and Allegheny Valley — raising the overnight total to 17,000 to 20,000 crows! The next night fewer groups arrived so Oakland’s overnight population dropped to 9,000.
On Thursday the 12th I saw the flocks prepare to roost in Schenley Farms so I called my contacts below and told them to start smacking their “crow clappers.”
It worked. Thousands of crows levitated over the neighborhood then wheeled south to perch on Webster Hall, eventually moving elsewhere. They didn’t roost in Schenley Farms that night.
Some of them are sleeping in the trees at Pitt but even that location is in flux. I’ve seen sidewalk evidence near the closed section of Bigelow Boulevard …
… but they were avoiding the trees at the corner of Bellefield and Fifth after a predator — peregrine? — ate a crow after yanking off the head and wings. The crows stayed away from that warning for weeks. (If you’re curious about the head, click here.)
Eventually the flock will pick a winter roost. I hope it’s one that doesn’t bother people so we can coexist in peace.
(photos by Mike Fialkovich, Alex Toner, Kate St. John)
For the past three months I’ve been trying to count Pittsburgh’s crows but it’s incredibly hard to do. Last night I tried again as they flew from a staging area in Shadyside to a roost somewhere west of Bellefield Avenue. After 20 minutes I suddenly realized I’d missed a steady stream flying in from the Allegheny Valley. How many thousands had I missed? Aaarrg!
My sister-in-law suggested I use photos to count them so here are four photos with 13 crows circled in each one.
Thanks to all of you, my readers, who have kept me blogging about birds, nature and peregrine falcons. Your enthusiasm keeps me going. And a big thank you to all the great photographers who let me use their photos. See who they are here.
This week the Pittsburgh winter crow flock changed their habits. Last week they staged above Oakland at Sugar Top but this week they moved to the edge of Shadyside where they hang out on trees and rooftops before flying to the roost. Their evening flight is right outside my window.
On November 2 and 4 I recorded just a fraction of the 10,000 crows flying past my window.
Earth will be a different sort of place—soon, in just five or six human generations. My label for that place, that time, that apparently unavoidable prospect, is the Planet of Weeds. Its main consoling felicity, as far as I can imagine, is that there will be no shortage of crows.
Since moving to Oakland three months ago I’ve had a front row seat on the crow population. From a family group of six crows in late July the numbers grew to 200 in mid-August, 1000 in late September, 5000 in mid-October and now in late October 10,000 crows come to Oakland every night. The question that worries everyone who has trees is this: Where will the crows sleep?
Crows roost in mature trees or on flat roofs where there’s ambient light, white noise and no disturbance. They want the lights on so they can see danger coming, especially owls. They like white noise — the sound of traffic, rushing water, or humming fans — but they don’t like sudden loud noises.
About 10 years ago the crows chose Pitt’s campus (photo below, December 2017).
Two winters ago they moved one block north to Schenley Farms, a small neighborhood of mature trees and historic homes where their noise and slippery feces are overwhelming. This year Schenley Farms is going to encourage the crows to sleep elsewhere by making sudden loud noises before the crows settle for the night.
The first step, however, is to find out what the crows are doing. I volunteered for that job and I love it.
I’ve learned that crows move into Oakland almost exactly at sunset, land in final staging areas 1-3 blocks from the roost, and swirl around for 30-45 minutes until they settle.
Last Saturday the crows didn’t choose Schenley Farms but I couldn’t see their final roost west of Soldiers and Sailors because of intervening buildings. On Monday evening at 8pm Michelle Kienholz photographed them roosting on trees and buildings near the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH).
They’re hard to see in her photo below …
… so I removed the brown and circled them in red. They line the roof edge and the treetops. One is flying in the dark!
So far so good. The crows aren’t sleeping near the Cathedral of Learning. They’re not at Schenley Farms.
There’s still a possibility they could choose Schenley Farms but if they do the residents will use “clappers” like those Pitt has found effective for dispersing crows — simply two boards connected by a hinge that can make a loud clapping sound.
If clappers don’t work Schenley Farms will warn the crows before they roost by making really loud noises — pyrotechnic “screamers and bangers.” So far it hasn’t come to that.
Where will the crows sleep this winter? Perhaps far away.
Let me know if you find them.
(photos by Kate St. John, Joanne Tyzenhouse and Michelle Kienholz. Clappers photo via Alex Toner at Univ of Pittsburgh)
Steve tweeted this shirt and three related designs with many sizes and colors at Patos Locos Shirts on August 18 but I forgot to order one. This morning I did –> at Patos Locos Shirts. (See Steve’s comment below about availability.)
Does auto-correct change “COVID-19” into “CORVID-19″ for you?
Fine. Let’s make this about crows. 🙂
p.s. The shirt was a collaborative effort. Steve and his birding friend Adam Stein (PhD in ornithology from Syracuse) must have been musing about the disruption of COVID-19 when he came up with this idea. Adam’s wife did the bird art. There’s a story behind the name Patos Locos. Read more here.
Last Sunday two crows saved a toddler in Vancouver, BC from running into traffic.
Two crows just saved my toddler. The toddler has always loved crows. She’ll talk to them, watch them out the window etc. She is also a runner. She’ll get an idea into her head and just start running towards traffic. Which is what she did today. pic.twitter.com/djXfCEl8kZ
I usually am in peak helicopter mom mode but today she went from “trying to turn on a water fountain while I sat on a bench” to “running towards traffic” in 1 second flat.
I am not fast so I was chasing after her as she ran towards the road. Suddenly two crows swooped down to the fence and started yelling at her. She stopped, went over to the fence and talked to them. The crows kept up yelling at her and she just stood there, chatting with them.
I caught up, and stood between her and the road, and watched their interaction. After a few minutes, the crows gave me a sharp caw and flew away. Everyone in the playground was like “those crows came over to save your kid.” I made sure to thank them!
There’s one thing we can count on with the coming of spring. Pittsburgh’s winter crows will soon be gone.
Every year thousands of crows come to town in November, build to a crescendo by the end of the year and disperse in late February through March.
Residents near the corner of Bellefield and Bayard Avenues in Oakland can hardly wait. This winter a nightly flock of 3,000 to 4,000 crows plagued their area, roosting in trees near the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children. The scene in North Oakland looked a lot like this 2013 video from Minneapolis.
The video’s author, Chuck Smith, points out that the crows usually don’t spend the night in his neighborhood but when they do they leave their calling cards behind.
I like watching crows but I don’t have to live with them.