Poughkeepsie’s Massive Crow Roost

As the weather cools off, crows flock to Poughkeepsie by the thousands to join a communal roost, a ritual that’s been recurring in the area for at least four decades. Though the exact roost site changes slightly from year to year, the crows invariably arrive as the temperature drops.

Crows roost in Poughkeepsie.
(Photo: Nava Tabak / Scenic Hudson)

The Poughkeepsie crow roost is the largest for hundreds of miles. And with trains and bridges carrying thousands of commuters right past, the incredible gathering of birds provokes fascination at its scale.

Even the experts aren’t immune to wondering at it. Vox Pop’s Rich Guthrie, a retired ornithologist who compiles the Catskill Christmas bird count for the National Audubon Society, recalls watching nightly even years ago when he lived along the crows’ flight path in Poughkeepsie. “My son and I would sit out on our porch in the evening and watch the waves of crows coming in from the west, going to the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center, where the roost was located at the time,” he says. “It was an evening event.”

Crow. (Photo: Karen Kraco / KracoCreative.com)

American crows are highly social and are constantly interacting with members of their extended family or neighboring families of crows. “In the late-winter and early-spring, the sense of a territory becomes much more heightened and the boundaries of the territory will be defended with relatively more gusto than during the non-breeding periods,” according to Douglas Robinson, a biology professor at Newburgh’s Mount Saint Mary College. Robinson conducted his Ph.D. research on crows’ social behavior and also studied the crow population at Cornell University’s vaunted Lab of Ornithology.

Fish Crow. (Photo: Peter Stewart)

“Whether you have crows living as residents or migrants in your community,” Robinson says, “you’re likely seeing the same individuals over time.”

Crows in Winter

In the Hudson Valley, the crows are territorial during nesting season in February and March, Robinson says. Further north, the birds are migratory. They leave their northern territories, especially when there’s snow on the ground, and travel south.

This means that the crows that roost in Poughkeepsie are primarily migrants, rather than locals. In late November and December, we’ll see the number of crows flocking to the Poughkeepsie roost begin to grow larger, as northern birds travel south, increasing the size of the roost. 

Crows fly over the Arterial in Poughkeepsie, December 2018.
(Photo: Jo-Anne Asuncion / Scenic Hudson)

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.

Fish Crow. (Photo: Peter Stewart)

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. “The staging process is a wonderful thing to watch,” Guthrie says.

Why Poughkeepsie?

No one knows exactly why the crows roost in Poughkeepsie in the winter, but Guthrie 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.

Crow. (Photo: Karen Kraco / KracoCreative.com)

“We think there’s some cultural transmission of information taking place,” Robinson says. “Roost sites like the one in Poughkeepsie are known spots to gather during the winter evenings. They might shift slightly over time, but we can predict that they are going to be there on a regular basis.”

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.”

Crows in winter. (Photo: Karen Kraco / KracoCreative.com)

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,” Guthrie says. “That’s how the Poughkeepsie roost gets so large, with wave after wave of crows flying upstream. This continues well into darkness.”

Crow in flight. (Photo: Karen Kraco / KracoCreative.com)

Crows mark the change of seasons

When the crows come to roost in Poughkeepsie, it’s a clear indicator that the seasons are changing. The roost begins to gather as early as August in smaller groups of about 50 to 125 birds. The number of birds increases as the weather cools, reaching as many as ten thousand (or more) by December.

Fish Crow. (Photo: Peter Stewart)

To catch a glimpse of this phenomenon, Robinson recommends looking from the west side of the Hudson River out over the Poughkeepsie area (at sunset, of course.) He likes to observe crows flying to the roosting site from Franny Reese State Park in Highland. Across the river, Guthrie recommends watching from from Cottage Road, at the north end of Poughkeepsie, near the Hyde Park Border. Wherever you watch, bring your sense of awe.

Jacqueline Dooley is a freelance writer located in Eddyville, N.Y. Her essays about grief, nature, birds, and parenting have appeared in the Washington Post, Longreads, Modern Loss, Al Jazeera, and more.

The Valley’s Fall Birdwatching Forecast

If you stand outside at about 9:30 p.m. and listen quietly, you might hear the distinctive “wheet” calls of the Swainson’s Thrush as they migrate south from as far north as Quebec, through New York State, and onto Central and South America.

This is the advisory I got from Tyler Hoar, a Canadian ornithologist who is responsible for publishing the birding world’s hotly anticipated annual Winter Finch Forecast, which is posted, like clockwork, in late September every year.

Swainson’s Thrush (Photo: Matt Krawczyk @birdingwithmatt)

Hoar is a freelance biologist and ecologist whose work in the boreal forests of Ontario primarily focuses on birds and wetlands across the Great Lakes. For almost 20 years, Hoar has worked with Ron Pittaway, a now-just-retired Canadian ornithologist, to give birders a prediction of what species they’ll be seeing flying south when, and in what numbers.

Like weather forecasting, bird forecasting is an imperfect science. But like having a sense of when to carry an umbrella, it’s a helpful starting point.

How the forecasts get made

To compile the annual outlook, Hoar starts with a network of birders, naturalists, and biologists from parts of eastern North America all the way to Alaska who observe cone crops and send him information about how they’re impacting finches during the breeding season in spring and summer.

“Our volunteers observe cone crops from a distance or get right up to the trees,” Hoar explains. “Some people who give us information are foresters, so they’re out there looking at the individual seeds from a tree to see what the actual cone crop is for their area.”

Common Redpoll (Photo: Corine Bliek @corinebliek)

Hoar’s team uses this information to get a big picture of the cone crops across the boreal forests to help them figure out where the food is for certain species of finches. 

“We use this information to try and figure out which birds are going to come down into a given area,” explains Hoar. “We can’t definitively say that a specific species will arrive in a specific area, but we can try to predict the movements of the winter finches.”

Yellow Warbler (Photo: Jeff Anzevino)

Hoar emphasized that finch migration is entirely dependent on crops — a bumper crop often means that certain birds never leave the boreal forest at all. When they do migrate, birds don’t reliably fly from north to south, but follow the line of food from east to west (or vice versa) before moving south or north during migration. 

Some winter finches you might see

The east-west movement along the line of food explains why I may see redpolls in my Ulster County feeders, but you may not see them at your Greene County feeders.

For a list of all the migrating finches (and a few additional irruptive passerines, or perching songbirds), check out this year’s 2020-2021 Winter Finch Forecast, hot off the virtual presses. 

Purple Finch (Photo: Karen McCallie @kbmccallie)

Be sure to stock your feeders with black oil sunflower seeds. Major winter finch arrivals — like Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks and Purple Finches — love them.

Tyler Hoar

Here are a few of the finches listed in the forecast. Note that we’re unlikely to see many of these birds this winter (based on the forecast), though keep your eyes out for:

  • Evening Grosbeaks
  • Purple Finches
  • Common Redpolls
  • Hoary Redpolls
  • Red Crossbills

Hoar receives hundreds, even thousands, of messages from bird watchers in eastern North America wanting to know what finches will possibly visit their feeders each fall. Here’s a hot tip from him: Be sure to stock your feeders with black oil sunflower seeds, he says. Major winter arrivals — like Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Grosbeaks and Purple Finches — love them.

Insight from a local ornithologist

While the Winter Finch Forecast unofficially marks the start of fall migration in the Hudson Valley, it’s only a starting point when it comes to predicting what we’ll see, experts like Greene County’s Rich Guthrie say. Guthrie is a retired ornithologist who keeps up a birding show on WAMC.  

Red-breasted Nuthatch (Photo: Lisa Liu)

“It all boils down to food,” Guthrie says. “If it’s a good crop, the birds are going to stay put. If there’s a cyclical failure or shortfall, then the birds will roam around looking for food. That said, recent history tells us that while these predictions sound nice, they don’t live up to their promise because there are other factors involved.”

Migration seems to have gotten an early start this year, Guthrie says, with many reports of Red-breasted Nuthatches in our area. “It seems like this is a banner year for the Red-breasted Nuthatch,” he says.

Horned Lark (Photo: @brianwhite_photography)

While September is just the start of migration, the real surge will happen in October. “September is usually the telling month,” Guthrie. “Many of the winter finches show up in great numbers in October and November, but [then] keep going south. They skip over this area and end up in Maryland, Virginia or Pennsylvania, and we’ll see them again in April or May on their way back north.”

Guthrie also noted that Redpolls are typically seen around December and early January, so these are late migrants which we can still see in our yards around the Hudson Valley and the Catskills. Snow Buntings, Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs are among the most-anticipated winter arrivals.

Snow Bunting (Photo: Corine Bliek @corinebliek)

Where to look for fall migrants in the Valley

Fall migration has begun, so now’s the time to get outside and try to spot some new birds. Guthrie noticed the first non-breeding warbler in his yard in early September. New World Warblers are small, colorful songbirds that are hard to spot (but are absolutely adorable when you do catch a glimpse). 

New World Warblers come in a rainbow of blues, greens, yellows, and oranges, but you won’t see them at your feeders, for the most part, because they eat insects and berries.

Myrtle Warbler (Photo: Alvin Nixon @alvin.nixon)

To get a glimpse of warblers, finches and other fall migrants in the Hudson Valley, Guthrie recommends local birders check out these spots:

In addition to Guthrie’s comprehensive list of parks and preserves, I have my own favorites. They include Esopus Meadows, High Banks, and Black Creek Preserves in Ulster, Nyquist-Harcourt Wildlife Sanctuary in New Paltz, and The Shawangunk Grasslands in Wallkill.

Want to dig in even further and peek at your daily birding potential, based on factors like rainfall? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Colorado State University are now collaborating on a national BirdCast, updated daily. And the news of Dallas doing “Lights Out Nights” through Oct. 10 for birds’ sake, there is hope that the fresh attention being given to birds will help protect their migration.

Wherever and whenever you go to see the migration show, grab those binoculars — there’ll be lots to spot ahead.

Bird Scavenger Hunt

It’s never too early to start your kids on the road to what could become a rewarding and lifelong hobby — birdwatching.

Keeping a lookout for these colorful and aerobatic creatures is a fun and interactive activity that can strengthen children’s connection with nature:

  • It combines the thrill of the chase with an explorer’s joy of discovery,
  • It adds extra incentive to going outdoors and stepping away from the screen,
  • It can be done anywhere — in the backyard, at the playground, on a hiking trail, while driving, standing in a field…,
  • It helps to develop patience, mindfulness and good listening skills,
  • And it costs absolutely nothing.

To encourage the next generation of birdwatching fanatics (yes, as many Scenic Hudson employees can attest, it can become an obsession), our environmental educators have devised a Bird Scavenger Hunt.


It will hone your children’s powers of observation as they seek to track down birds sporting various colors, birds engaged in different activities, even a bird feather. Consider turning it into a contest by rewarding those who successfully complete the hunt with a pair of binoculars or some other treat.

Where could it lead? There are more than 1,600 species of birds in the U.S. Who’s to say your child won’t be inspired to see them all, like former Bard College student and environmental educator, art teacher, and bird guide Christina Baal, who is on a mission to draw all 10,000-plus species of birds in the world.

Bird Breeding Atlas

Bird Watching from Indoors (Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr)

Want to contribute to a scientific project while doing something you may already love? Then sign up to start providing data for New York’s Bird Breeding Atlas.

This initiative, spearheaded by the New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Ornithological Association, Audubon New York, state Department of Environmental Conservation and others, takes place every 20 years. For this third iteration of the atlas, observers will record data from now through 2024.

More than a count, the atlas yields important information about changes to birds’ habitats by documenting where they mate and nest. The last atlas, released in 2008, concluded that over half of New York’s 253 species experienced a significant change in their distribution since the previous atlas, with 70 species increasing and 58 declining.  

Bird Watching from Indoors (Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr)
Bird Watching from Indoors (Photo: MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr)

New this year, observers will submit their information to ebird, an online platform managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Described as the “world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project,” ebird collects and archives data from more than 100 million bird sightings contributed each year. It even allows individual observers to keep an ongoing record of their sightings.

Via ebird, participants in the New York Bird Breeding Atlas will record not only the species observed but share information about their calls as well as evidence of breeding and nesting. You don’t even need to leave home. Data about birds in your backyard—and those of your next-door neighbors—are just as critical as those gathered further afield. For some ABCs, click here.

Who benefits from your sightings? Along with the groups that advocate for protecting bird habitat, including Scenic Hudson, it provides vital information for scientists researching everything from climate change to socioeconomics. You also stand to gain: Contributing to the Bird Breeding Atlas provides another reason to grab the binoculars and keep tabs on your feathered friends.

Red, White & Bluebird

Male Eastern Bluebird (Photo: Patricia Pierce on Flicker (CC by 2.0))

“When nature made the blue-bird she wished to propitiate both the sky and the earth, so she gave him the color of the one on his back and the hue of the other on his breast.” —John Burroughs

Spotting a male eastern bluebird adds a special thrill to any outdoor excursion. Its patriotic plumage — vivid blue back, rusty red breast and white belly — makes it one of the most colorful animals in the natural world. Perhaps for this reason, it has the rare honor of being the official bird of two states: New York and Missouri.

While a treat for birdwatchers, the male eastern bluebird’s beauty has a more important function — to attract a female bluebird. To prove he’s a responsible mate, he takes some very rudimentary strides to build a nest in a tree cavity, often a hole created by a woodpecker. He spends most of his time perched near the hole, flapping his azure wings to “hook” an interested female. He leaves it entirely up to her to complete the housekeeping — gathering and fitting together the twigs and grasses to build the cup-shaped nest.

Once the 3 to 7 eggs in a typical brood hatch, the male helps feed the young. The normal bluebird diet consists of insects, fruits and berries, although they have been known to chow down on salamanders, snakes and tree frogs.

Unlike most bird species, eastern bluebirds typically hatch two broods a season. The first batch is pushed out of the nest in the summer. Those born in the second hatching tend to overwinter with their parents. Sadly Eastern bluebirds have a very high mortality rate — most die within the first year of life from starvation, freezing or falling prey to other animals. Still, their overall population has remained relatively stable.

How can you help Eastern bluebirds? If your yard is relatively open — they don’t like shady, forested areas — consider building a nest box.  You can find tips for this here. And stop using pesticides: the bluebirds will take care of your lawn’s insects.

Snow Birds

Why do some birds in the Hudson Valley opt NOT to fly south for the winter, instead braving the cold and congregating at backyard birdfeeders?

First and foremost, they’ve decided it takes less energy to forage locally for food — and keep warm — than it would to fly hundreds of miles to a warmer climate. Remaining here yearlong also gives them a leg up in securing the best habitats and defending their territory from migrating birds. And it allows them to spend more time nurturing their young, increasing the next generation’s chances of survival.

To stay put, birds have adapted in a number of ways. For example, when winter arrives, they must switch their diets, relying on nuts and berries instead of the buds, bugs, berries and seeds available the remainder of the year. Some birds, such as blue jays, hide caches of food to tide them over. In addition, most gain an extra layer of downy feathers in the fall to protect them from the coming chill.

Researchers have found that overwintering birds — including cardinals, chickadees, wrens, nuthatches, and some species of woodpeckers — tend to be more intelligent and curious than their migrating counterparts. This gives them an advantage in seeking out food sources. Perhaps most fascinating, these birds work in unison, even across species, during the winter. By foraging in mixed flocks, they up their chances of locating food, and by roosting together they’re likelier to survive a cold snap.

By setting up a birdfeeder and keeping it filled, you’ll not only be doing your part to help sustain the valley’s yearlong bird population, but will have an excellent opportunity to observe these colorful creatures.

Bird’s-eye View

peregrine falcons

In addition to facilitating travel across the Hudson River’s Tappan Zee, the New NY Bridge offers a seasonal home to peregrine falcons. The state Thruway Authority provided a nest box for a couple of the endangered birds to raise their young. The box also offers a great high perch for them to spot prey in the river below. Falcons dive at speeds reaching more than 200 mph, making them the world’s fastest animal.

In addition to the box, the Thruway Authority kindly provided a camera that allows the public to play peeping Tom, keeping track of the birds’ comings and goings.    

peregrine falcons
Peregrine falcon and chicks (eyases) in their new seasonal home atop one of the 419-foot towers.