Fall is coming, school’s in session and in about eight weeks the crows will be back in town.
For now they’re in no rush to get to Pittsburgh. I don’t expect large numbers until October, but when they come will I see a difference in them? Did they learn new tricks this summer? Will they be even smarter than last year?
Perhaps they’ve learned to use tools!
Here’s a year-old video from Science Friday that shows just how smart crows can be. (Click on the image to get to the video website from September 2010.) The birds in the film are New Caledonian crows who live on a Pacific island and are famous for using tools.
Steve Valasek sent me this photo of a raven landing and said, “We visited Acoma Pueblo on Monday and saw many ravens riding the updrafts on the sides of the mesa. Our guide said that he’s actually seen them fly upside down.”
You bet they fly upside down!
Ravens are very acrobatic fliers. I’ve seen them tumble together many times as they launch over the cliffs at Acadia National Park in Maine. They seem to get a lot of joy from doing this and might even be competing to see who can make the best moves.
It’s so hard to describe how cool they are that I found a video of ravens sky-tumbling at Lundy Island, Great Britain. Watch carefully at 29, 40 and 44 seconds and you’ll see one of them completely flip over sideways. Awesome!
Ravens are cool, but for speed you can’t beat a peregrine. While searching for the first video, I found this one of a peregrine harrassing two ravens at Culver Cliff, Isle of Wight. The big soaring birds are ravens. The very fast, smaller, flapping bird that appears from above at 3 seconds and 13 seconds is the peregrine.
It’s not often that you see a raven’s nest in western Pennsylvania.
This spring Tim Vechter has been watching a family of ravens near Greensburg. He took their picture through his scope last week when the four young birds were just about to fledge. By now they’ve probably left the nest.
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.