Great Egret

Great Egret

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

They're baaaack!

It is November, and the crows are whirling around Chatham-Kent like they own it. Just like snowbirds head south for warmer climes in places like Florida, Texas and Arizona, those large black avian creatures have arrived in C-K from points farther north, intending to spend the winter here.

It happens every year. By mid-October hundreds of thousands of American Crows are beginning to pass through southern Ontario. They only go as far south as they think they need to go, and that means C-K is a likely spot to linger. Large numbers of them do continue on eventually, leaving Ontario for places even farther south. For example three years ago, over the course of about a month there were more than half a million documented heading across the Detroit River for Michigan and places beyond.

Driving around Chatham at daybreak or sunset these days, one can see huge numbers of crows in the air, in the fields, in the trees and on the rooftops of office and commercial buildings. This first image is of a small number of crows I saw yesterday. They were in a field of about 15 ha right next to my former office. About half of the field was covered, and more kept pouring in while I watched.
 Almost every tree within about a 4 sq km area had crows in it.

I estimated that there were about 125,000 crows in the area yesterday, at least from what I could see. I expect there were many more elsewhere around the city beyond my view. Some bird experts have estimated that there are often 250,000 or more that are in the Chatham area at this time of year, before tens of thousands move out, leaving us with 'only' 150,000 or so around for the winter.

A peculiar thing about the crows this year is that many may not have even arrived yet. Or maybe haven't left either. In 2013, as mentioned above, about 550,000 crows had been documented leaving Ontario. In 2014, by this date, there had been almost 175,000 of them documented leaving. In 2015, more than 153,000 had been documented leaving.

However in 2016 so far, there has been a mere 36,560 crows recorded leaving.

What is going on, especially this year? Has the population of crows in Ontario dropped? Not likely. Have the crows decided not to leave quite yet, uncertain about the chaotic elections south of the border? Again, not likely. Have those folks counting them at the two hawkwatches in Essex and Michigan been sleeping on the job? Not likely. Have they been distracted by such huge numbers of hawks that they haven't been able to keep track of the crows? Not likely. Have the crows taken a slightly different route to head to the US, at a location beyond the viewing of the two hawkwatches? Perhaps.

My guess is that with the unseasonably mild weather in 2016, crows haven't even arrived this far southwest yet. They are likely stopping at other similar urban/agricultural centres which provide the many benefits to them that C-K does, at least until winter sets in. In looking at the Christmas Bird Count data from counts across southwestern Ontario in the last few years, the numbers of counts  with larger and larger crow numbers are on the rise.

So maybe there are a lot more crows to come, but are waiting for winter to encourage them to move closer. We will have to wait and see.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a fairly extensive blog post on why crows are so enamoured with Chatham-Kent. Rather than repeat a lot of that, you can read about it here.

There are other birds that are around in rather large numbers. The other day I was driving along just east of Mitchell's Bay when I encountered probably the largest single flock of blackbirds I had ever seen. As with any huge, mobile flock of birds, it is difficult to get an accurate estimate, let alone an actual count. But I concluded there had to be about 40,000 birds, and at least 90% of them were Common Grackles, with a few Red-wings, European Starlings and Brown-headed Cowbirds mixed in. These next two images show very small portions of the flock. They were on both sides of the road, in the corn fields, in the trees, in the air and on farm lawns. I was hoping to see a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and undoubtedly there was the odd one, but it was so hard to scan through the entire flock.

At one point when a large section of the flock that was quite close all got up to fly, it sounded like a low rumble of thunder. It was truly an impressive sight and sound.

There are lots of waterfowl around these days as well, a fact well known to many. Chatham-Kent and particularly the Lake St. Clair marshes and adjacent areas have for more than a century and a half, been renowned for their waterfowl hunting opportunities. Hundreds of thousands of ducks, geese and swans pass through each fall.

Some of the geese are smart enough to know that hunting doesn't take place within Chatham. As a result, sometimes a thousand or more can be found within the city limits, either in some of the recently harvested fields, or in the green belt area. The Mud Creek area offers prime viewing. And with the large numbers of Canada Geese, one can find other species. For example a couple of Snow Geese have been seen from time to time. Garry Sadler advised me today of an adult and juvenile bird that had just arrived with a large flock of Canadas, so I headed out to get a few photos.

Adult Snow Goose
Juvenile Snow Goose

I've seen other species of waterfowl at Mud Creek as well, although not frequently. However on occasion one can find a Northern Pintail or Wood Duck joining the gang. These next four photos were all taken at Mud Creek at one time or another.
Northern Pintail
Wood Duck

Cackling Goose looks like a miniature Canada Goose, and can sometimes be found with a bit of effort. They are small, not much larger than the Mallard in the background of this next photo, and definitely smaller than the more common Canada Goose also in the background.

Late this afternoon, I headed for the Mitchell's Bay North Shore Nature Trail, hoping for something of interest. There was a huge number of American estimated 5200 of them in various flocks out in Mitchell's Bay, but too far away to bother with a photo.

It was a beautiful evening, and I spent a bit of time enjoying the sunset. If you didn't catch it from where you were, I hope you can enjoy it vicariously through this last photo.


  1. Never knew about your crows down there! I'm sure we have a few that stay around here in the winter.

    1. They seem to be expanding their winter range, so it isn't surprising that you see them in your area, Stew. With the way things are going, expect to see more and more, but they won't likely approach the hundred thousand or more that we have had for several decades.