Monday, May 23, 2011

Hawks and Crows

Crows coming from all directions to answer an alarm call.
It finally got warm enough in Seattle that I needed to open all the doors and windows last week.  (Friday it passed 70 degrees for the first time since last November).  In the early afternoon I was working in the back of the house when I heard an ungodly racket outside.  I looked out the back door, and saw crows flying in from all directions.  They were cawing and raising the alarm, and it looked like they were headed right for my house.  When I got outside they were wheeling overhead, taking turns diving at the upper branches of the tall dogwood tree next door.  I couldn't see what they were after, but I had a good suspicion what it might be.
I've seen this before.  Even though crows are spread thinner here than they are in the more urban parts of the city, they can gather very quickly in a crisis.  And when the crows are upset, it pays to follow them.  

Once, when I was in the park with my friend and our two dogs, we heard the crows raising hell and followed the sound to a tall tree just off the path.  A  Barred Owl was hunkered down in the crook of a branch, being harried by crows.  Just to make the tableau even more magical, a hummingbird was darting around in the upper branches, picking out insects, oblivious to all the noise the larger creatures were making (as hummingbirds often are). 

Crows "counting coup" on an unseen enemy.

You don't always get quite that much pay off, but every time I've ever seen an owl in the wild, it's been because crows led me to them.  And they can lead you to other big predators too.

Red-Tailed Hawk (at bottom) pursued by angry crows.

One afternoon last fall the crows started raising a ruckus.  This time, they were zeroing in on a tree across the street -- one that has an old abandoned crow nest in the top, which you can see in the winter when the leaves are gone.  They swirled around and attacked that tree for half an hour or more, before their quarry got tired and made  break for it.  That time, I was able to chase the fleeing bird with my camera as the crows chased him across the sky.  When I got the pictures uploaded and zoomed in, I could tell exactly what it was:  A Red-Tailed Hawk.

Young Cooper's Hawk from last summer.

 Hawks are not uncommon in Seattle.  I took these photos of a young Cooper's Hawk in Westcrest Park, just up the hill from where I live, late last summer.  While I was watching him, he was calling and responding to at least one other Hawk that I never saw.  As birds go around here, the big hawks like Cooper's and Red-Tails are pretty much apex predators.  Top of the food chain.  Of course, there are Bald Eagles in the city too, but they're more interested in carrion and when they do go after prey it's usually fish -- size and the whole national symbol thing notwithstanding, they just aren't the hunter's that the big hawks are. North of here, in the San Juan Islands, and across the mountains in Eastern Washington, there are Golden Eagles, enormous birds and very serious hunters.  But you almost never see them around the city.  (I've had the privilege of being very close to both Bald and Golden Eagles while volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation center -- I've also been close to hawks, and have even handled some of the smaller hawks.  But I've never handled anything as big as Red-Tail or a Cooper's Hawk.)

Hawks and crows are on the opposite ends of the sociability spectrum.  Raptors tend to be solitary, or to live as mated pairs.  Both Cooper's and Red-Tails are believed to mate for life, a pair staying together until one of them dies.  But crows are among the most social of birds, and that is really where their advantage comes in.  The larger and more powerful raptors are no match for a mob of crows.  (And mob is really the appropriate word.)  I find this fascinating because it seems so similar to what probably gave humans the edge in our early history -- we weren't stronger or faster or more powerful than most of the animals around us, but we were smarter, and we knew how to work together.  Crow are one of the most intelligent birds, and they seem to understand the value of cooperative behavior.  (I've read accounts of crows hunting in small groups, forcing smaller birds to fly into buildings so they can eat them.)  

I've spent a lot of time watching and following crows.  They almost always lead me to something interesting.



If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

(Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)

No comments:

Post a Comment