Category Archives: Crows & Ravens

Where Will The Crows Sleep This Winter?

Winter crow flock flies over Soldiers and Sailors, 24 Oct 2020, 18:30 (photo by Kate St. John)

28 October 2020

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).

Hundreds of crows roost in a tree at Univ of Pittsburgh, moon and Heinz Chapel in background, 1 Dec 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

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.

Crows heading for Oakland at sunset (photo by Joanne Tyzenhouse)

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).

Crows roosting on the treetops across from GSPH, 26 Oct 2020 (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

They’re hard to see in her photo below …

Crows roost near Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, 26 Oct 2020, 8pm (photo by Michelle Kienholz)

… so I removed the brown and circled them in red. They line the roof edge and the treetops. One is flying in the dark!

Crows roost on 26 Oct 2020 at 8pm near GSPH (photo by Michelle Kienholz with markup)

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.

Crow “clappers” used at Pitt (photo supplied by Alex Toner)

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)


Fish crow (photo by Chuck Tague)

3 September 2020

Usually “CORVID-19” with an “R” is a typo. This time it’s not.

Crows, ravens and jays are all members of the Corvid (Crow) family. Twenty species occur in the continental U.S. This T-shirt designed by my friend Steve Valasek has nineteen of them. Who’s missing? See below(*).

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. πŸ™‚

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.

(*) Who’s the 20th Corvid who’s not on the shirt? The Tamaulipas Crow (Corvus imparatus). By the way, the northwestern crow was lumped with American crow in June 2020 so it’s no longer a separate species.

(photo by Chuck Tague. T-shirt designed by Steve Valasek is available at Patos Locos Shirts)

p.s. My shirt came! Here’s what it looks like.

Two Crows Save The Day

Two American crows look intently at… (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

14 July 2020

Crows remember the faces of people who pay attention to them and are kind to those they know(*) so it’s not too surprising that …

Last Sunday two crows saved a toddler in Vancouver, BC from running into traffic.

The toddler’s mother, Arley Cruthers of Vancouver, BC writes:

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!

— tweets by Arley Cruthers (McNeney)

Crows save the day!

Click here for the complete thread.

p.s. The Twitter thread includes this heartwarming story by June Hunter of how crows helped rescue a lost dog: A Christmas Miracle — with Crows!

(*) p.p.s. Crows also remember the faces those who are mean to them; they shout and harass them.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original; embedded tweet from Arley McNeney Cruthers)

Winter Crows Will Soon Be Gone

Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)
Crows burst off a building as they prepare to roost in Oakland, 4 Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St.John)

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.

(video by Chuck Smith on YouTube)

A Corvid Sweep

Ravens in flight (photo by John Johnston via Flickr Creative Commons license)
Sweep(noun): In sports, a sweep is a series in which a person or team wins all games.

During the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count (CBC) last Saturday I saw every member of the crow family that occurs in Pennsylvania. I had a Corvid Sweep in my own city neighborhood!

Twenty corvid species can be seen in the US. but Pennsylvania hosts only four: blue jay, American crow, fish crow, and common raven. Blue jays and American crows are common, but until this century ravens and fish crows were quite rare in Pittsburgh. This year’s CBC tallied 7 ravens and 10 fish crows in the 15-mile circle, swamped by the presence of 10,000 American crows. (*)

The ravens (Corvus corax) were a real surprise. A group of four circled up and played in the sky over Hazelwood Greenway. I heard them call as they landed on the tallest thing for miles around — the radio tower next to Calvary Cemetery. Woo hoo!

Fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) are probably under counted in Pittsburgh because they’re hard to identify. They look just like American crows though slightly smaller. The only reliable way to identify a fish crow is by its nasal voice. If he doesn’t speak we don’t know who he is.

For sheer spectacle, though, nothing beats the winter crow flock coming in to roost. Claire Staples and I counted 10,000 from the roof of a parking garage near Trees Hall and we know we under counted, perhaps by half. This year the flock didn’t pre-roost west of us and, because buildings block the view, we never saw the crows that stream in from the Allegheny Valley and Shadyside.

But we did stop by the area of Bellefield, Bayard and Bigelow where 3,000 to 4,000 crows spend the night. This year they’ve abandoned Pitt’s campus, only two blocks away, and I think I know why. On December 18 at 5:00pm I was counting crows flying from Schenley Park toward Pitt when I saw the new resident female peregrine, Morela, escort them away from campus. Aha!

Crows fly in to roost in Oakland (photo by Kate St. John)

Hooray for the Corvid Sweep!

(photos by John Johnston via Flickr and Kate St. John)

(*) preliminary count as of 12/29/2019, before all the data is in.

Where is Pittsburgh’s Crow Roost?

Crows on their way to roosting on Pitt’s campus, Nov 2016 (photo by Kate St. John)

If you live in Pittsburgh I need your help. Where are the crows sleeping?

On 28 December 2019, Claire Staples and I plan to count crows for the Pittsburgh Christmas Bird Count. In the past it’s been easy to find the winter flock. Our only challenge has been counting 10,000 to 20,000 crows.

This year I’m worried. Last evening I drove around Oakland at 8pm and couldn’t find a single crow. They aren’t in the trees near the Cathedral of Learning (Pitt is grateful!). They aren’t in lower Schenley Farms. They’re not at Flagstaff Hill or Schenley Drive or at CMU.

I know they’re in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen them streaming overhead at 4pm and counted 2,000 staging at Schenley Park. But they leave after dark. Where is the roost?

If you know where the crows are sleeping, please leave a comment and tell me where. (Here’s what a roost looks like, pictured in 2017.)

Crows roosting near Heinz Chapel in 2017 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even if you don’t know where they sleep, it helps to know where thousands of crows are flying at dusk and dawn. What direction are they going? Please leave a comment to let me know.

It would be a real shame if Claire and I can’t count the crows!

(photos by Kate St. John)

They’re Baaack!

A murder of crows flies past the Cathedral of Learning, heading for the trees (photo by Kate St. John)

If you’re wondering whether the crows would return to the University of Pittsburgh campus this winter, I have news. The murder is back, but only after dark. (*)

Late Monday afternoon, 28 October, I waited until sunset near the Cathedral of Learning for the peregrines to return for the night. The falcons slipped by unnoticed but as I walked to my car a huge flock of crows arrived. They were shouting!

The vanguard aimed for the trees on Forbes Avenue …

Crows burst off the trees at Forbes Avenue near the Cathedral of Learning, 28 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

… then burst into the sky, wheeled around, and flew to Fifth Avenue.

The sunset sky is filled with crows near the Cathedral of Learning, 28 Oct 2019 (photo by Kate St. John)

By the time I drove past Heinz Chapel hundreds of crows were crossing the dark sky above Fifth Avenue near Clapp Hall. My windshield acquired “spots” as I passed beneath them.

This week most people won’t notice the crows because they arrive after everyone’s left Oakland for home.

Not so next Monday. After we turn the clocks back, sunset will be at 5:13pm and the crows will arrive during rush hour.

Next week, wear a wide-brimmed hat. πŸ˜‰

(*) A group of crows is called a “murder.”

(photos by Kate St. John)

Re-Learning The Wild

Hawaiian crow in the wild in 2017 (screenshot from ‘Alala Project video (San Diego Zoo Global) shown below)

We have so many crows in Pittsburgh in the winter that it’s hard to imagine any crow becoming extinct but this species, the Hawaiian crow or ‘alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), declined rapidly in the 20th century from disease, habitat loss, and predation. They are now extinct in the wild.

Because the birds were obviously in trouble, a captive breeding program began in the 1970s but it wasn’t enough. By 2002 Earth’s only ‘alalas lived in captivity so scientists prepared carefully for their first release.

Five Hawaiian crows were released in the forest in 2016 but the attempt was unsuccessful. Three of them died, the majority killed by the i’o, the native Hawaiian hawk. The remaining two were brought back into captivity.

The ‘Alala Project revamped their strategy for the next release. The crows had lived in safety for generations and apparently didn’t realize the hawk was so dangerous, or they didn’t warn each other.

Since crows are safer when they stick together the team assessed each crow for its compatibility and hierarchy and chose the group accordingly. They also taught the crows to recognize and raise the alarm when they heard or saw a Hawaiian hawk. The alarm call is important.

A study of Hawaiian crow vocalizations published in January 2017 found that the language of the captive population contained fewer alarm and territory calls and the frequency of alarm calls was greatly reduced. This had to change in the wild.

Eleven birds spent nine months preparing for their release (read more in this Audubon article). Six were released in September 2017, five more at a nearby location in October 2017. They were monitored daily during their first year in the forest.

So far so good. As of fall 2018 they are thriving and they are vocal. Here’s a video from the ‘Alala Project taken during ongoing tracking of the birds and their sounds.

These Hawaiian crows have re-learned the wild. There’s hope they’ll be the start of a future ‘alala population on the islands.

For more information, see this 10-minute video about the ‘Alala Project or this 6-minute video about their release in 2017.

(screenshot from video by San Diego Zoo Global about the ‘Alala Project)

Tour Day 10, Fly to Honolulu. Begin the journey home

Gifts From Crows

15 February 2019

Four years ago in Seattle, eight year old Gabi Mann consistently fed and interacted with the crows in her backyard. She formed such a tight bond that she could recognize individual crows by sight and gave them names. The crows rewarded her by bringing gifts.

Many animals give gifts to members of their own species but crows and other corvids are the only ones known to give gifts to humans. As John Marzluff explains in the video, crows will do this for people who feed them a lot and pay attention to them, or even rescue them.

When I read about this several years ago in Marzluff’s book Gifts of the Crow, I briefly thought about trying to make friends with crows but decided it would be a difficult relationship. If your friendship with crows is based on food they remember your generosity and bring their friends. Lots of friends. They can be quite demanding and don’t understand if you stop. Not everyone appreciates this.

Gabi’s story made international news in February 2015 but we don’t hear about it anymore. Six months after this video was filmed, two of Gabi’s neighbors sued demanding $200,000 and a court order prohibiting the Mann family from putting out more than a 1/4 pound of bird food. It took a year to settle the lawsuit; the details were not made public.

Crows remember the faces of those who are mean to them and those who are especially kind. I’m sure that a few special crows remember Gabi.

(video from BBC on YouTube)

How To Tell A Raven From A Crow

Common raven (photo by Marge Van Tassel)

5 February 2019

Ravens (Corvus corax) are becoming more common in Pittsburgh but you might not notice them because they resemble crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos).

In the past month I’ve looked closely at pairs and solo crows. Sometimes I discover they’re ravens. Here are tips for telling them apart, listed from easiest to hardest.

  • Tail shape: In flight ravens have wedge-shaped tails, crows have straight-across or curved-tip tails.
  • Sound: The raven’s call is a rough “Brock! Brock!” Crows say “Caw! Caw!” Ravens also say a lot of bizarre things.
  • Flight style: Ravens soar and sometimes tumble, crows flap. If you see a soaring corvid it’s a raven.
  • Social behavior: In Pittsburgh, ravens travel alone or in pairs, crows travel in big flocks or family groups of 3-4. (In Los Angeles there are flocks of ravens.)
  • Size (not always helpful): Ravens are larger, the size of a red-tailed hawk.
  • Silhouette: Because the raven’s tail is longer and wider, his head looks relatively small and pointy.
  • Beak: Ravens have big powerful beaks, crows do not.

These silhouettes illustrate two field marks. On the left, two crows have straight-across or curved tips on their tails. On the right, the solo raven has a wedge-shaped tail and his head looks relatively small and pointy.

Two American crows on the left, one raven on the right (photos by stonebird on Flickr and Shutterstock)

Sound is the best field mark if the birds are calling. This audio clip from Xeno Canto has a raven in the foreground (Brock! Brock!) and crows cawing in the background.

Raven calling, Crows in the background (recording made in Massachusetts by Will Sweet, Xeno Canto 453945)

Ravens also have an amazing vocal repertoire including these unusual sounds: The Bell call, a machine sound, a water drop, “taco taco” and much more.

Still stumped on how to tell the difference? Here are additional tips and a quiz from The Raven Diaries.

(photo credits: raven in flight by Marge Van Tassel. Comparison: two crows by stonebird on Flickr, raven silhouette from Shutterstock in 2010)

p.s. Click here for an audio treat that includes ravens calling in almost-human voices, recorded in the Adirondacks near Vermontville, NY.