Each fall, 10,000 or more crows choose Poughkeepsie for their largest roost in hundreds of miles. We know just a bit about why.
By Jacqueline Dooley
Crows flock to Poughkeepsie by the thousands each fall, a ritual that’s been recurring in the area for at least four decades. The Poughkeepsie crow roost is the largest for hundreds of miles.
American crows are highly social and are constantly interacting with members of their extended family or neighboring families of crows. “Whether you have crows living as residents or migrants in your community, you’re likely seeing the same individuals over time,” says Douglas Robinson, a biology professor at Newburgh’s Mount Saint Mary College.
Crows in Winter
The crows that roost in Poughkeepsie are primarily migrants, rather than locals. In late November and December, the number of crows flocking to the Poughkeepsie roost grows larger, as northern birds travel south, increasing the size of the roost.
Around sunset, the crows arrive from the Ulster side of the river and gather in staging areas prior to moving to the roost. A staging area is basically a gathering place for the crows located close to the roost. Staging sites can include trees, parking lots, buildings, and (much to the dismay of some residents) backyards and houses.
Staging is a boisterous time for crows, with a lot of chatter and interaction among the birds prior to roosting. They’ll often gather in relatively small groups of 50 to 150, then head out in groups.
No one knows exactly why the crows roost in Poughkeepsie in the winter, but Rich Guthrie, a retired area ornithologist, notes that the birds are likely drawn to cities and suburbs because, quite simply, they’re warmer. The crows probably return to these sites because of collective crow memory.
In addition to warmth, roosting in populated areas like cities and suburbs may provide some protection from nocturnal predators, especially owls. “Owls are the biggest predators for crows,” Robinson says. “Especially the great horned owl.”
Crow communication is instinctual. They meet up in (roughly) the same staging area year after year, with occasional shifts depending on local conditions. “The crows don’t have road maps or GPS. Smaller platoons of crows will gather and merge with others, forming the army march to the roost site,” says Rich Guthrie. “That’s how the Poughkeepsie roost gets so large, with wave after wave of crows flying upstream. This continues well into darkness.”