Saturday morning there was a mystery on my street.
Ten minutes before dawn a huge flock of crows flew over my neighborhood, then turned and wheeled over the ballfield, cawing loudly.
They were hard to see in the dark but they were easy to hear. They circled several times outside my window. It was so unusual that I reported them on PABIRDS.
At mid-morning I heard sirens. Six police cars, a firetruck and an ambulance roared up my street to the ballfield. The firemen carried their medical emergency kits to the bleachers, an area not visible from my side of the park. Soon they returned and drove away. The ambulance stayed longer but he left too without doing anything.
Meanwhile camera crews from all three TV news stations had set up their equipment across the ballfield and were pointing their cameras at the bleachers. A plain white car arrived in front of my house and three people emerged, pulling on purple latex gloves.
By now I had guessed that someone was dead. I couldn’t stand the suspense so I got my 10-power birding binoculars and walked around the ballfield to the vicinity of the TV crews.
With binoculars I could see that there was indeed a body on the cement bleachers. The police and detectives were taking pictures, checking the scene, examining, talking. The body was on its back, upside down, crumpled over itself as if it had fallen from the sky. It was in an unnatural position but its white face was up, easily seen from above in faint light.
So that’s why the crows wheeled and cawed.
The crows know. They saw it first. Now it’s up to the coroner and detectives to find out what happened.
If I was to place a bet on crows I’d wager they didn’t spend last night in the plane trees on University Place in Oakland. I’d win this bet because of what I found there less than 24 hours ago.
Yesterday morning I got a call from a Pitt employee who tracked me down out of concern for the peregrines. Marian had found a very large raptor standing on the ground near Soldiers and Sailors Hall on University Place. The bird would not fly away and there were feathers scattered on the ground beneath its feet. She was concerned that this was one of the peregrines and that it was injured and unable to fly away.
The situation sounded like a red-tailed hawk on a kill but you never know. I was happy to help and went over to check.
As I arrived at University Place I noticed a lot of crow poop on the sidewalk beneath the London plane trees. The closer I got to the site, the more poop there was.
When I reached the place Marian described I didn’t find a large bird on the ground but I could tell exactly where he’d been. Right next to the sidewalk was a big pile of crow feathers, a few crow bones and a crow’s skull and beak. Whoa! Someone had been eating crow!
I imagined the fear in the flock when that raptor arrived. I’m sure it scared the poop out of them and they left in a hurry. No wonder the sidewalk was gross.
Now there’s one less crow among the 10,000+ who roost in Pittsburgh and those still living can see how he died.
I can pretty much guarantee the crows won’t be back there soon.
To those of us in eastern North America this bird looks all mixed up.
He has a crow head, blue jay colors and an incredibly long tail. He resembles crows and jays because he’s a corvid. We don’t see him in Pennsylvania because he lives west of Iowa and east of the Sierra Nevadas. Say hello to the black-billed magpie.
I saw this bird once. But now I have never seen him. Years ago I saw a magpie outside my airplane window as we taxied to the gate at Charles de Gaulle airport. Then, in their never-ending quest to reclassify birds the American Ornithological Union split the black-billed magpie from the European magpie and this bird dropped off my life list. He is now Pica hudsonia. The bird I saw in Paris was a Pica pica.
If I visited open country in the western U.S. I could easily re-add this bird to my list. Black-billed magpies are loud and conspicuous, midway in size between blue jays and American crows. Like crows they are smart, omnivorous and versatile. Their claim to fame is their very long tail (more than half their body length) and their huge ball-shaped stick nests.
Maybe I should fly to Denver and look out the airplane window.
I was inspired to write the Crow Diary after I visited the roost last night in Oakland.
As I predicted the time change has forced evening rush hour to coincide with the crows’ return to the roost so it’s much easier to keep tabs on them. My friends and I call each other with the news.
Tony Bledsoe told me he had to “run the gauntlet” early yesterday morning to avoid crow poop falling from the trees near Crawford Hall.
Last night I went to see. When I got out of the car at Bigelow and Ruskin, it smelled like I was in the presence of a lot of birds. The crows were silent and almost impossible to see. They weren’t “in” the trees. They were on top of them.
Using binoculars I was able to count an average number of crows per tree: 55. In the nine trees on Ruskin Avenue: about 500.
Most of the tall trees in that neighborhood north of the Cathderal of Learning had crows on them, but the crows were silent. The pedestrians below had no idea that thousands of birds were sleeping above them.
Pittsburgh’s winter crows move their roost location a little every day. By next week they might not be near Crawford Hall.
p.s. As you can see from the Diary, I think crows speak in short sentences.
p.s. A “murder of crows” is a flock. As the show opens there’s a very good black and white animation of a crow flock that is frankly rather scary. Even I, who love crows, found it disturbing but it was the only disturbing image in an otherwise upbeat and fascinating program.
When I found this photo the other day it brought back memories. Here are a couple of ravens at the overlook at the Petrified Forest. What are they doing? I’ll bet they’re waiting for handouts.
Back in the early part of this century I visited Death Valley and made a point of stopping at the overlook on the eastern side. In the parking lot I found a pair of ravens obviously waiting for visitors. As I parked the car they sized me up. Likely food source? “No. Leave her alone.”
Soon a family mini-van arrived and the kids piled out with snack food. Jackpot!
One raven chose the six-year-old girl as a likely pushover. He walked to within 10 feet and faced her, watching every move as she brought potato chips to her mouth. I could hear his thoughts shouting, “Throw one to me!”
Something about her eye contact said “OK, I’ll give you one” and the raven stepped forward as the girl handed him a potato chip. His beak was as high as her hand.
After several chips Mom broke up this conclave. No problem. Mission accomplished.
Eastern ravens aren’t as bold around people but they’re still tricksters. On Sunday I saw two ravens at Keystone State Park in Westmoreland County. One by one they flew out of sight beyond the hill, then appeared above the trees carrying a pinkish-white teardrop-shaped blob. A small plucked chicken? I couldn’t tell what it was but someone would be puzzled to find it missing.
The ravens made my day. I always enjoy watching the Wise Guys.
(photo of two ravens, courtesy PDPhoto.org. Click on the photo to see the original.)
Saturday, 4:30pm: I’m driving down Fifth Avenue on my way home from Armstrong County when I see a constant stream of crows flying high on their way to Oakland. They’re heading for the roost but where, exactly, would that be?
“Aha!” I thought. ”I’ll follow them.”
This was easier said than done. Crows don’t pause for stop lights and their flight path was not aligned with any one street. For about a mile I drove from stop light to stop light cursing the traffic signals and rapidly losing sight of the crows. Lost them! Then I remembered that my friend Karen told me a huge flock of crows gathered at the corner of Bigelow Boulevard and Craig Street nearly every evening last week. Why not try there?
I didn’t see another crow until I arrived opposite the Marriott Residence Inn on Bigelow Boulevard. Talk about birds! Thousands of robins, crows and starlings filled the sky. The robins made beeline flights across the street into the trees. Crows arrived in a steady stream from the north and gathered on the hilltop.
The starlings were the best. They popped off the Residence Inn in great “balls of birds” like the picture above. On and on, they flew in undulating circles getting ready to settle for the night. Just when I thought they’d stop, a Coopers hawk zipped by and chased several birds in the half-light. The crows didn’t care – they had already begun to move down to rooftops on Melwood Street – but the robins went nuts and two flocks of starlings made another pass in very tight ball formations. Around and around they flew. The Coop made a couple more attempts but struck out every time.
Eventually it was too dark to see so I went home, congratulating myself that I’d found the roost.
Well, not exactly.
The robins and starlings may be there but last night the crows were not. Karen found them above Polish Hill and moving down to the Strip District.
Nothing is quite so humbling as being fooled by thousands of crows.
p.s. Don’t miss the starling show on Bigelow Boulevard or at the Birmingham Bridge at dusk. Wow!
(photo of a swarm of European starlings by Vasily A. Ilyinsky from Shutterstock)