Of Crows and Owls

Dear Jane and Fellow Friends of the Wild,

Crows are getting on peoples’ nerves these days. My neighbor Alicia told me recently that she got  extremely mad at an AMERICAN CROW that she saw eating a songbird this last summer. She said emphatically that she would never like crows again, that in fact she now hated them.  I had thought that crows were only scavengers of dead animals, but according to Ehrlich’s major reference, “The Birder’s Handbook,”  book,  crows will indeed eat not only birds’ eggs but also nestlings.   Perhaps Alicia’s songbird was a nestling, prematurely fallen from a tree.  Nonetheless, crows are basically scavengers,  usually eating what we grow or toss, as evidenced by  this crow having his morning croissant dipped in river water.

Crow dipping his croissant, San Lorenzo River, May 14, 2017, Photo by B. Riverwoman
Cooper’s Hawk, Jan. 1, 2019 San Lorenzo River, riverine reach, Photo by B. Riverwoman

Is it possible the crows are getting even pushier these days? Recently I saw three  AMERICAN CROWS harassing  a COOPER’S HAWK who was perched on a telephone line over the river minding his own business.  The crows took turns diving at the   raptor who, for the moment, was the hapless target of crows rather than the predator of hapless songbirds.  The hawk finally flew off,  probably deciding

Attacked Cooper’s Hawk with 3 other crows. Preening afterwards. September. 14, 2019, Photo by B. Riverwoman

that life was too short to take on this particular group of well-organized  ruffians.  One of the crows promptly plopped himself down on the spot where the hawk had been and started happily preening, no doubt relishing his recent triumph.

 

 

Snowy Egret landing on San Lorenzo River, November 2016, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My daughter Kate, visiting from Sacramento,  went out on the river for a run this last week. Just as she was approaching the Riverside Bridge, she saw a SNOWY EGRET flying in with her feet out, grawking loudly at two crows, presumably signaling her territorial rights or intentions.  The crows were facing her and squawking back, energetically flapping their wings for added effect.  Kate said that there was much uproar for a few seconds, then the two crows flew away grumbling and the egret landed. One for the other side – and a delicate egret at that!  (The egret photo is from a few years back – with no crows. )

 

Crow exploring a plastic bag. November 25, 2015, San Lorenzo River, Photo by B. Riverwoman

My everpresent curiosity about crows was now piqued, I returned once again to my wonderful book titled “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John Marzluff (Yale University Press 2005.)  Marzluff has some fascinating stuff about how crows co-evolved with humans ever since earliest history.  He goes so far as to say that our social evolution might be partly determined by the need to cooperate in order to protect ourselves from predatory and scavenging crows during the hunting and gathering era, and especially in agricultural times – thus the  agricultural term “scarecrow”!   He says that in turn, “much of the culture of today’s american crow is a direct response to our ancestors’ agrarian culture.”  He then brings it down to the present moment and, interestingly,  mentions high-rise buildings.  “The roosting culture of many corvids has also responded to the warmth, protection, and vertical structure that our cities provide.”  This makes me wonder if  we should be using this argument in our challenges to the seven-story luxury buildings being planned for downtown Santa Cruz!  Will they attract unwelcome crows as they did in Berlin where, Marzluff says, winter evenings were marked by the arrival of thousands of crows onto the glass skyscrapers to roost communally in a warm, safe location.  The main point Marzluff is making, of course,  is that we ourselves are responsible for crow behavior since our lives have always been, and still are, so closely intertwined

Yet in our indignation at crows, let’s not forget that not only hawks, falcons and owls eat other birds, but so do our beautiful river friends, the great blue herons and  black-crowned night-herons. And crows, for the most part, eat only carrion, not live animals.  No matter how we cut it, it’s a hard life for those little songbirds.  No wonder they are constantly looking over their shoulders!

Great-horned Owl, Google Image

Speaking of owls, two other neighbors, Batya and Cass, separately reported to me that about 10 p.m. on Thursday last week they saw, independently,  two owls circling overhead near the river, their underwings white and one of them at least emitting a screech that could have been the begging call of a juvenile GREAT HORNED OWL, or could have been the similar sound of a BARN OWL.  Both Batya and Cass also heard the inimitable hooo-hooo of the Great Horned Owl.  It seems kind of unlikely that both species would have been out and about at the same time, but who knows.  In any case, we know there was at least one great-horned owl and possibly two barn owls to boot. Ah – I wish I had seen that!  Maybe the appearance of both owls presaged the Climate Strike actions the next day which started in more or less the same area. That would be cosmically satisfying.   It was more likely, though, that the birds were attracted by all the newly opened-up space created by the flood control work.

On September 24th I began to fret about the GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROWS who I knew were due back from  their summer breeding grounds in British Columbia and Alaska. Where were they?  The white-crowned sparrows had already been back a week.

Golden-crowned Sparrow, April 16, 2019, El Rio MHP backyard near river, in full breeding plumage just before heading north to breeding grounds in Canada or Alaska. Photo by B. Riverwoman

I checked my noteook where I try to keep a list of the arrival and departure dates of migrants.   I noticed that the first GOLDEN-CROWNED SPARROW arrived last year on September 25. Unbelievably, the next day, I heard the plaintive descending whistle of the Golden-crowned in my back yard, returning on exactly the same date as last year!  Incredible!  I haven’t gotten a photo of a returnee yet, but here’s one from April of this year, just before this Golden-crowned left for the north in her brightest breeding plumage. The males and females of this species are indistinguishable.

May you all have a wonderful experience of wildness this week, either far away or in your backyard. .

Barbara

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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