Dear Bird Folks,
We regularly see this rather large bird flying around our neighborhood. Our resident flock of crows harasses this bird every time it flies. Do you have any idea what kind of bird this mystery bird could be? I’m a Girl Scout troop leader and I have a bet with my co-leader on this bird’s identity. One of us (I’m not saying who) thinks it’s a hawk, while the other thinks it’s an owl. What do you think? –
– Veronica, Dennis, MA
I like it, Veronica,
I like being involved in a good bet, especially with Girl Scout leaders. Is this part of the new gambling merit badge that I’ve heard so much about? You were wise not telling me who is betting on which bird. If I knew that I would be asking you for a bribe, or at least a cut of whatever the winner receives. On second thought, maybe not. With Girl Scout leaders the winner will probably end up with a keychain made of gymp (Do they even use gymp anymore?), or worse, a box of Thin Mints. Gag! I know Thin Mints are the most popular cookies Gird Scouts sell, but they can have them. They remind me of something served at a boring piano recital. Give me a chocolate chip cookie any day. And while we are on the subject, if Girl Scouts sell Girl Scout Cookies, why don’t Brownie Scouts sell brownies? How good would that be? Look into that, Veronica, will ya?
I think we’ve all driven through towns that have signs posted that read, “Neighborhood Crime Watch.” I’m not sure if any crime watching ever happens just because those signs are posted, but if the local folks were serious about fighting crime, they should hire a resident flock of crows. Crows don’t miss a thing. They are ever watchful and will instantly rat-out any creature that even looks like it could do something evil. Once a predator is discovered the crows sound the alarm by screaming and flying at the potential problem. This behavior is called “mobbing.” Mobbing crows scream long and loud, as if they are possessed by some crazy demon…just like those people who yell at town hall meetings, only the birds make more sense.
The purpose of mobbing isn’t fully understood. The most popular theory is that the birds’ goal is to drive the predator out of their territory. The crows will just keep screaming until the troublemaker can’t take it any longer and moves far away, only to become some other bird’s problem. Another thought is that the ritual of yelling tips off all the other crows (as well as other birds, animals and anything with ears) that there is a predator in the area. With their presence announced to the entire world, predators will have little chance of surprising any prey that day.
Crows aren’t always the mobbers; sometimes they are the mobbees. Crows will occasionally visit a nesting tern colony looking for any unguarded eggs or young chicks to steal. To thwart hungry crows adult terns rise up as one, swoop toward them with their sharp beaks and scream with a voice that is so harsh that it makes the crows’ voice sound like Beverly Sills. In addition to swooping and screaming, terns have one more surprise weapon that they can unleash on predators; mobbing terns will bomb intruders with their own excrement. This method of mobbing is as effective as it is disgusting. The defending birds are amazingly accurate at hitting their intended target with their own droppings. With their built-in “tail gunner” terns are very good at shooting backwards, which is impressive if you think about it. (If you don’t agree, try it sometime and let me know how you do.)
Now that I’ve finished a riveting explanation of why birds mob, plus a heartwarming story about poop-shooting terns, I’m going to cast my vote on which bird the crows in your neighborhood have been mobbing. I’m pretty sure the bird in question is a Red-tailed Hawk. Red-tails are “large birds” and are active daytime hunters and that makes them constant targets for crows. Most owls, even the big ones, stay put during the day. They like to sleep hidden and out of sight. If they are discovered by crows, they either just sit and take the abuse or will quietly move to an area of thicker cover. You aren’t likely to see an owl flying around the neighborhood while the sun is shining, at least not “regularly.” I’m going with Red-tailed Hawk.
I hope you won the bet, Veronica, but don’t feel bad if you didn’t. You are closer to being right than the guy who called from Indiana last week and left me a message at 1:00 AM. This guy, who was also involved in a bet, needed to know how many House Sparrows there are in the world. (At 1:00 AM? You gamblers sure are a strange bunch.) He thought there was a “trillion sparrows.” A trillion!! House Sparrows are very common birds, but all the birds in the world combined don’t come close to being a trillion. So he lost the bet big time. There will be no gymp keychain or Thin Mints for that guy. Although, I wish somebody would buy him a watch and teach him that 1:00 AM isn’t the best time to ask bird questions.