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Hawks Getting Mobbed

Dear Bird Folks,

Did you ever notice that when a hawk stumbles into the territory of crows, redwings, grackles, etc. and they attack to chase it out, the hawk does not just say “Ok, I’m out of here pronto!” and fly away in a straight line? Rather, the hawk keeps looping around in circles which gives the little black-type birds more opportunity to beat him up. How come?

– Dave, Albany, NY


Hi Dave,

Thanks for the question, but you scared me when I read your first line asking, “Did you ever notice…?” I thought that weird Andy Rooney guy was writing to me. You don’t have a little whiny voice and industrial strength eyebrows, do you?

Sure, I’ve noticed. The behavior of small birds attacking a larger predator is called “mobbing.” Just like you said, the smaller birds are trying to drive the bigger bird out of town, or at least out of their part of town. Mobbing can be seen any time of year, but most often during nesting season. Other times of the year smaller birds can simply move away from an invading predator, but in the spring, most birds have set up a territory and they are obliged to defend it.

The reason why large hawks choose to ignore the noisy smaller birds can only be guessed at, since we have spent way to much money on the space shuttle and not nearly enough on teaching hawks to speak English. My thought is that the hawks become used to it and the harassment simlply becomes part of their life, like working in a birding store and having to listen to stories about squirrels all day long. It is going to happen no matter what, so they might as well try not to fight it. Also, there is little reason for the hawks to fly away because they are bound to end up in some other bird’s territory and will have to listen to those new birds scream in their face. If they kept flying away, the hawks would never be able to get on with what they need to do to survive, like hunting, migrating or learning English.

Another question is, why don’t the hawks fight back? Well they could, but I’ve read where hawks, owls and ospreys have been killed when “the mob turned ugly.” So perhaps, even though I have no evidence, it is better for the hawks to remain calm and endure the name calling and not do anything to trigger the attack instinct of the smaller, but more abundant birds. Even big bad hawks might realize aggression is not always the best answer.

You may have noticed that crows, jays and small birds mob mostly large, soaring hawks. Large hawks are rarely quick enough to actually catch a small bird. Seldom do we see birds mobbing the smaller, quicker hawks. Small hawks can easily catch songbirds and would love to have the little birds visit them for lunch. So the small hawks are wisely avoided by most birds. The birds, instead, turn their attention to the less threatening larger hawks. The unfortunate larger hawks have become victims of displaced anger and must hold weekly encounter groups to assure themselves that the anger really isn’t pointed at them.

Equally as interesting is that smaller birds, like blue jays, will team up with crows to drive away an owl. When in reality, the crow is probably a much greater threat to the blue jay’s nest than any owl is. Sometimes it seems birds worry about the wrong things. Just like in this country, we all worry about the problems with China when the real threat to our society is the New York Yankees. And…oops, I forgot you were from Albany, Dave. Ah, so what? You know it’s true.