Until recent years, I’d have guaranteed you a glimpse of a hawk any time you heard a cacophony of crows (or is that caw-caw-pho-ny?). But this year has not been “guarantee-able” in many of Nature’s providences, and all bets are off as to why we are not seeing brown thrashers, towhees, catbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and too many more species.
’Tis noted by ornithologists nationwide that songbirds are losing ground in the race between wild things and human development. In a pique, I sometimes turn my gaze around and change the subject, an act of surrender in a war I cannot win.
Back to crows. American crows are so given to a behavior known as “mobbing” larger birds, usually hawks and owls, that for years, I had a perfect record. On hearing the excited, persistent cawing, I’d dash out, locate the source, and without exception, get a good look at a red-shouldered or sharp-shinned hawk.
Defending turf? Hawks do prey on smaller birds, and a nest of young crows or eggs just naturally looks like a dinner-plate to a hungry hawk.
But crows mob hawks year ‘round, out of habit, I suppose, even when they have no nests or young to protect. Many times I’ve watched a hawk move from tree to tree, or seek a different thermal to try to elude his pesky tormentors.
To no avail -- his slightest movement just fuels their furor. I once observed a buteo perched quietly on a branch high in an oak, ignoring crow expletives. But even crows get tired eventually, and finally they sat on nearby branches merely shouting insults.
At last, perhaps cramped at sitting still so long, the big guy stretched one wing and shook his shoulders. This set off a veritable explosion of crows. When he could bear no more, the hawk slipped gracefully from the tree, and was last seen gliding across the trees south of Crosstown, rocking slightly as his pursuers dived on his extended wings, their racket fading only as they flew out of sight.
The American crow is not the only bird that harasses larger predators, by the way. His cousin the blue jay engages in almost exactly the same behavior, often directing his indignation at crows. Mockingbirds likewise defend their territory, although usually solo, fearlessly rapping the heads of cats, dogs, even humans they consider trespassers.
I began by saying that my hawk-spotting record was perfect until this year. One of the advantages -- and disadvantages -- of being a telecommuter is that you are free to leave your desk long enough to go watch nature’s children at their jobs. The hard part is remembering to return to your own.
But this summer, I’ve run for binoculars when I hear the commotion, but found no hawk at the center. The crows are there all right. I suspect it is the same family that stayed together last winter, a common practice in a species that does not reach reproductive maturity until the second year.
They hold strident discussions in the treetops, upholding divers points of view, reminding the observer of scenes of the British Parliament we Americans find so amusing and so, well, un-British. This honorable gentleman loudly berates that honorable gentleman, and both sides boo and cat-call, while a hefty lady who is supposed to keep order endeavors to gavel down the clamor, all the while adding cries of “OR-duh! OR-duh!”
Somehow the Brits engage in this decidedly uncivilized mode of government with great civility indeed. It all seems to be in such a spirit of fun, lacking the acrimony heard from the well of the U.S. Senate.
Dave and I have long been admirers of crows -- of Brits too, for that matter -- and we’ve always wished we could raise one from egghood. They are among the smartest of birds, smarter than necessary merely to survive, according to an article we read.
And so, they play, making toys of red plums they roll down sloping Adirondack chairs, diving to retrieve them again and again before finally flying away with them.
Last week, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a steady drifting down of leaves in the wooded area beyond my window. Ever distractible, I turned from the computer to look, wondering what deciduous tree had decided this day in October was the best to shed its leaves.
I followed the path of the descending leaves back up to a huge leafy platform, apparently a squirrel’s nest from last year. Can’t imagine it was crows; even though they become silent during nesting season, I could not accept that I missed a nest of crows only 100 feet from a window I gaze from daily.
Nonetheless, there were my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Corvus Brachyrhynchos and their four children, renovating that nest, stomping from one side to the other, picking out leaves that didn’t match this year’s decor and flipping them over the side. They worked earnestly and without their usual comment, until the kids got bored. Then they lifted themselves above the trees, and took off with a steady wing beat.
I doubt if they’ll nest there, but wherever they go, I know I’ll always turn to listen to that wild, defiant cry, and feel a pang of envy of those free spirits as I trace their path across the Autumn sky.
They own the sky and, for that matter, whatever treetop they choose, and heaven help the passing hawk who overflies the boundaries.
[Sallie Satterthwaite of Peachtree City has been writing for The Citizen since our first issue Feb. 10, 1993. Before that she had served as a city councilwoman and as a volunteer emergency medical technician. She is the only columnist we know who has a fire station named for her. Her email is SallieS@Juno.com.]