Crow Calls

great_horned_owl_arlene_koziol_glamorOn Monday morning, while putting out hay, I found black feathers strewn across the snow in the barn paddock. A few steps further I found large pieces of wing, with bone attached. Then a fan of tail feathers. Uh-oh. Something was eaten here.

Thank goodness, the feathers were too long to be from one of my Black Australorp hens. It must have been a crow. But how would a coyote have caught a crow? Maybe it was sickly and on the ground, I thought.

(Because they are a predator and also eat carrion, crows often suffer from heavy worm infestations. Back in the ’70s when I had state and federal licenses for handling wildlife, I was often presented with crows that were too thin and debilitated to fly; I wormed them, kept them for a week to feed them back to fighting weight, and then released them.)

But as I scanned the snow I realized there were no footprints. No coyote had trotted through my paddock. The attack on the crow must have come in the dark from the sky.

An owl.

Owls are a major predator of crows. Owls can see in the dark, which crows cannot; an owl can swoop into a flock of sleeping crows and snatch a bird from a branch with barely a whisper of wings. For this reason crows fear and detest owls, and when crows find an owl sleeping in the daytime they will mob it and scream warnings for hours.

Yesterday morning I was mucking the barn when I heard crows beginning to congregate, yelling, in the tops of the yellow birch and balsams at the edge of the barn paddock. I immediately dropped my pitchfork. Had they spotted the owl? I went outside to see.

I found all the cattle and Lucy’s horse Birch standing motionless, not eating, staring at the woods with heads lifted and ears pricked, listening to the alarm calls of the crows (could the livestock understand a specific message, or just a scream of danger? Such speculation fascinates me). Unfortunately for any claims of sheep intelligence, the ewes seemed not to notice the raucous commotion at all. They kept their heads down, eating stolidly.

There were about eight crows, screaming and hopping from branch to branch. I could not see any focal point for their attention in the woods; in fact, several times a crow swooped over the paddock, wheeling and cawing. Finally I realized that they were not excited over an owl in the trees — they had spotted and were exclaiming over the dismembered remains of their fallen compatriot on the ground.

(I think I was thirteen or so when I first read Konrad Lorenz’s wonderful book, King Solomon’s Ring, with his explanations of jackdaw behavior. Ever since I have been inordinately fond of crows, ravens, and jays — all the clever “nuisance” birds.)

After ten minutes of unceasing din, I watched as one crow, braver than the rest, finally lighted on the ground near the scattered black feathers and bones. Crows often walk, rather than hop like other birds; this gives their gait an endearing swagger. While his pals in the trees continued to yell warnings, the brave crow strutted across the snow, cocking his head to inspect the various meager remains. Only the constant twitching and rearranging of his wings revealed his nerves.

At last the brave crow jumped into the air and flew away, cawing. I imagined him reporting, “This fella’s too far gone for rescue!” The whole flock followed and in a minute they were gone.

The barnyard was quiet again. The cows and horse returned to their hay. The sheep never looked up.

I love watching animals.

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