The red-tailed hawk that lives at or near Halcyon has it rough. Not only did I interrupt his chance for a nice chicken dinner a few weeks ago (see: http://www.halcyonnature.com/2013/01/06/chicken-matters/), he is constantly bullied. Not by me mind you, or by the chickens, who might be justified in engaging in such behavior. No, it is Corvus brachyrhynchos, the American crow.
The following scene has occurred often over the years we’ve been at Halcyon, and no doubt for hundreds of years before, but lately it seems to occur on a daily basis: a group of crows harassing a red-tailed hawk. Is it the season? Is it because I am here to notice? Or, quite possibly, is it because I am raising hawk-tempting food?
Sometimes the scene reminds me of an animal world version of an elementary school field trip: 8 excited children being rowdier than they’d dare in the classroom under the care of a patient adult. The hawk will be perched in a tall dead tree quietly surveying the territory below. Crows arrive one by one, cawing noisily. I admire the ability of the hawk to sit seemingly serenely on its perch while the crows fly in, cursing at it, and gathering on nearby tree limbs. My nerves would be rattled – I do not enjoy chaos. If I were the hawk, I would have no patience with the noise, and I’d be quite irritated that my presence had now been announced to all potential prey in the vicinity.
Other times the scene seems more violent and I feel anxious for the hawk, or at least anxious for the tension that is created. During these episodes a group of crows will fly after and sometimes dive bomb a hawk in the air. This behavior seems very daring and can go on for several minutes. I always thought crows did this to cause the hawk to drop a recently caught prey, but any time I’ve seen this behavior, the talons of the hawk are empty.
This audacious behavior by the crows is known as mobbing. I find it a very fitting term. I can almost imagine long black jackets and sunglasses on the crows as they fly after and bully the hawk. A flock of crows is sometimes called a murder of crows, another fitting term. The intensity of the mobbing can make me wonder if someone or something is about to come to a terrible end. Crows have been known to mob a fellow crow to death and eat the corpse.
Mobbing is an antipredator behavior and the term is used whenever a group of one species harasses a predator. It is a cooperative behavior to protect young, procure food, or escape or distract a predator. Mobbing is seen mostly in birds, but can occur in other animals, including, and often disturbingly, in humans. I tend to avoid large crowds because of an aversion to mobs and the potential for group excitement to lead to disaster. The last time I found myself in a small mob was when we were trying to buy iPhones at the newly opened Apple store in Barcelona. I was in line behind a group of men who were quite angry with the security guard, who was making sure no one cut in line. My heart raced – largely because I had little understanding of what was being said – and I remember thinking of the absurdity of incurring potential harm for a phone. Now I wonder if the crows that killed that other crow intended harm or just partook in a behavior that got out of control.
Crows exhibit signs of intelligence in their food procurement behavior, in their ability to learn tricks, and to, ostensibly, just have fun as noted in a recent you-tube video of a crow snowboarding down a rooftop with the help of a plastic lid: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kEpxDe6dxo
Some species have learned to make their own tools to obtain food or use our tools to help them. For example, dropping nuts into the street and then removing the meat once cars have crushed the nuts. My understanding of ecology would suggest that since the crow is very successful in obtaining food, they then learned to play because of all the “free time on their claws”.
If you’ve ten minutes of your own free time to spare (and thank you for spending some of it reading this post), this TEDTalk on crows: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhmZBMuZ6vE is a fascinating call for creative mutualism between humans and the very species we often scorn, instead of admire, for their tenacity in the face of human expansion.
So while the call of the crow is quite loud and can disturb a peaceful moment in my garden, I have come to appreciate their vigilante behavior – preferring to think of them as Robin Hoods of the land, rather than gangsters – because their warnings are a constant reminder to me that the hawk would really like some chicken for dinner.