Jun 04 2012
It used to be easy to identify crows in Pittsburgh. Every crow was an American crow (Corvus brachyrhyncos). But not any more.
In recent years fish crows (Corvus ossifragus) have been expanding their range northward from the coastal Southeast. The first I’d heard of them in western Pennsylvania was when Marcy Cunkelman said they were common in Indiana, PA. I found this odd because Indiana is land-locked.
What was a fish crow doing without fish? They earned their name by scavenging on beaches but fish crows aren’t picky. They’ll eat anything. They must have made an easy transition from dead fish to discarded hamburgers. Perhaps one spring they followed some American crows to western Pennsylvania — and so they are here. This year, they’ve been reported nesting in the City of Pittsburgh.
Fish crows are smaller than American crows but they’re impossible to tell apart except by voice. As Birds of North America Online says, “The only reliable difference between the two is vocal. The Fish Crow sounds like an American Crow with a bad cold.”
I’m sure you can imagine an American crow’s call without listening but here’s a recording to prepare you for the difference. “Caw, Caw, Caw.”
The fish crow’s call is two nasal syllables: “Uh-oh. Uh-oh.” (Click here to hear.)
Easy? Yes, except at this time of year. Baby American crows have nasal voices too (yikes!) so the call you hear could be a baby crow. There’s still a difference, though. Baby American crows call with a single note. (Click hear to hear.)
So, now that we have two kinds of crows, you’ll have to wait until they speak to be sure of them. “Uh oh!”
(photo of a fish crow by Chuck Tague)