I always pay attention to American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Most people ignore them if my experience means anything, yet crows not only are beautiful, large birds with striking profiles and raucous ways, but they also are boisterous prognosticators of predatory proceedings.
The more crows I hear talking, the more interested I become.
So on a morning that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be sunny or cloudy or sunny again, I turned my rapt attention toward the sound of cawing as it rapidly approached from the north.
Just as I expected, the crows were mobbing a hawk; in this case, a juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
Five crows followed closely with three more bringing up the rear. Each of the nearest crows took turns swooping in and bouncing off the raptor as it watched them closely and looked for safe harbor.
Standing beneath a large, barren cottonwood tree, I began to realize the entire scene was heading right for me, something made all too clear when the hawk seemed to set its gaze in my direction.
It was looking at the tree, no doubt, but still…
Zigging and zagging didn’t help. Powerful though they might be, buteos lack the agility to shake marauding birds like crows, blue jays and mockingbirds.
And young hawks lack the experience and strength that help adults outwit and overpower such assaults.
So a sharp turn brings the young one in for an abrupt landing in the top of the tree underneath which I was standing.
What an opportunity! It would have been better had there been a less obstructed place to stand where I could get a clear view, but the creek behind, the marsh to the left, the sun shining from behind me and more trees to my right forced me to view the goings on through a cloud of branches.
But that was better than not being able to see at all…
The poor hawk enjoyed all of two seconds of peace before the crows were on top of it.
And I mean that literally.
One of the crows landed on a branch right above the hawk, a position from which it screamed and agitated and made all manner of threatening noises and gestures.
Luckily for the juvenile predator, its perch kept it safe to some degree, although it didn’t shield it from a cacophony of challenges.
All eight crows began taking up positions in and around the tree where the hawk rested. Several came very close to the larger bird as others found comfort nearby.
So what is a young, inexperienced, exasperated hawk to do when surrounded by such mouthy and menacing miscreants?
Run for it.
It happened so quickly that I had to zoom way out just to snap a photo as both the hawk and the murder of crows swept from the tree in an instant. They flew over me so near and so fast that I stumbled back trying to keep it all in perspective.
Then the hawk turned toward the lake before arcing back over the dense woodlands behind me.
The crows stayed in hot pursuit.
As they moved further away, all but one of the crows joined in the chase. You can see the hawk at the bottom of the image with five of the crows giving chase. Two more were just out of the frame.
The remaining crow perched in the treetops and never budged. Lazy bum…
It’s then this story ended.
Or so I thought.
The whole group swerved into the sun from my perspective and became difficult to watch, let alone photograph, so I turned the camera off, put the lens cap on, and began walking backwards so I could watch them while making some progress toward home.
And that’s when it happened.
The young red-tailed hawk swept in over the Sunset Bay confluence and sprang out over the field in which I stood.
The murder of crows remained within spitting distance as they beat upon the poor bird.
But another predator had been watching the scene, silently taking in the lay of the land from hidden cover in the thick treeline that shields the many creeks that converge in the bay.
As all seven crows passed over the leafless limbs and back into clear sky, a massive form burst into the air behind them.
I never knew it was there. Neither did the crows.
Larger than the juvenile hawk and dwarfing the crows by leaps and bounds, an adult red-tailed hawk made like a bullet right for the rather unlordly train that followed the younger hawk.
No one ever saw it coming.
There is a sound a crow makes when it dies a violent and sudden death, a sound not unlike the screams of a tormented soul lamenting perpetual anguish.
I heard that sound a split-second after the adult hawk intercepted one of the crows.
A splash of a few feathers and that horrible sound acted like a grenade tossed in the midst of a crowd.
The crows exploded in escapes taking them in all directions.
I don’t know how long I stood there with my mouth hanging open, my eyes as wide as dinner plates, my mind reeling from what I had witnessed.
I do know it lasted a few seconds at most.
The crows got their collective act together and engaged both hawks as the whole group flew north.
Only later did I wonder if the adult was a parent to the juvenile, or if instead it was nothing more than a bystander who took advantage of an opportunity.
No matter. The show was spectacular despite unanswered questions.