A Winter Spectacle – by Carena Pooth

Contributor(s): Carena Pooth

A Winter Spectacle

By Carena Pooth

The crows and starlings are using their huge winter roost sites in Poughkeepsie again. Thousands of birds congregate every evening, spend the night, and depart at the break of dawn.

Crows - Night Roost, Poughkeepsie

Crows – Night Roost, Poughkeepsie

For most of the year these large roosts are vacant both day and night. During the warmer months the birds stay on their individual territories, busy with child-rearing activities. But when the mercury drops and the nights grow short, huge numbers of birds spend more than half their time in communal roost sites.

Roosting refers to a bird’s period of inactivity that is similar to our “sleep time.” In some species, roosting is a solitary or semi-solitary activity during the breeding season but is done communally during other seasons. Winter roosts may consist of small groups of birds, as they do for nuthatches or chickadees, or of billions of birds in the case of the now extinct passenger pigeon. The most conspicuous large winter roosts in our area are those used by crows and starlings.

From year to year and even from month to month during the winter, the big crow roost in Poughkeepsie changes location slightly. It is usually found close to the Hudson River, but sometimes the birds roost as far from the river as Dutchess Community College. As of this writing, crows are roosting by the thousands along Route 9 between Vassar Brothers Medical Center and the Mid-Hudson Bridge. As many as 10,000 crows gather in this area every night, only to disperse again in the morning to their daytime feeding grounds. By some estimates, crows commute as far as 50 miles each way on a daily basis — with no days off.

While 10,000 sounds like a big number, some crow roosts in the Midwest host up to a million individuals. For many years, New York’s largest crow roost was in Auburn on Owasco Lake in Central New York, where 60,000 birds were known to fill the trees every night. Nonlethal “hazing” efforts by the Department of Agriculture starting in 2005 dispersed crows so that the number of roosting crows dropped below 25,000, but the crows have established new roosts in other central New York cities.

Farther south, mixed flocks of blackbirds roost together in the winter, including large numbers of starlings. In our area, where most blackbirds are absent during the winter, starlings stay behind and brave the cold. Starling roosts numbering in the thousands have been reported during many winters since the 1960s.

According to Barbara Butler, who keeps the official records for the Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club, crows have made Poughkeepsie a central roosting destination for at least the last 40 winters.

Starting about an hour before sunset, thousands of crows arrive from all directions, including the Ulster County side of the river. Before settling in for the night, they gather in numerous ”staging areas” close by — in trees, on the ground, and even on the frozen surface of the Hudson. The crows are very active and noisy until after sundown, when they crowd together in scores of trees, quieting down and assuming their final positions for the night.

Toward dawn, they once again become active and return to their feeding grounds miles away. Less than 10 hours later, the cycle begins anew.

Why do they do it?

Kevin McGowan of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, who has spent years studying crows in central New York, says that the reasons are not fully understood. One possible motivation is protection from predators, such as the Great Horned Owl.

Another idea that has been proposed is that birds in large roosts may learn from each other where food can be found. Come morning, birds that have not been successful in finding food may follow others that look well-fed. It is also possible that roosting birds practice their social and defensive skills at the roost site, thereby learning what’s needed to succeed as members of their highly social species.

One of these evenings, take a ride down to the river in Poughkeepsie an hour before sunset and keep an eye on the sky. You may observe a seemingly endless procession of crows flying toward Poughkeepsie. If you stop to watch all the crows go by, you may need to wait a half hour or more. Enjoy the spectacle of thousands of crows raucously gathering for their nighttime roost against the backdrop of an awesome red sky, just as they have for many years.

Originally published in Our Environment (The Poughkeepsie Journal), January 2005

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