Murder & Mayhem in Birdpatch

Ah, summer. “Birds are singin’ and the livin’ is high…” to quote the song. Seems idyllic, no?

To live in rural Elkhorn is to get a crash course in the social life of birds, because birds are everywhere. Our immediate neighbors include finches, juncos, towhees, several types of hawks, jays, sparrows, swallows, robins, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, herons, on rare occasions an eagle, and always — the ever-present crows. A “murder of crows” is an old term used to describe a gathering of those inquisitive corvids. For good reason, I suspect.

A fairly quiet morning; hawks calling from the sycamore tree in the field.

More recently, a family of kites–beautiful but ominous-looking gray and white raptors with bright red eyes– has moved into the old oak tree behind the house. Now that the young ones are fledged, but not yet flying, they constantly exercise their vocal chords while the parents are out scanning the field for gophers. “TWEEEschrruurchh! TWEEEschrruurchh!” The older kites have developed a more civilied “KEWT! KEWT!” call. The hawks have a short, high-pitched screech, but for some reason, it always sounds extremely dignified, like the sound of an eagle at a distance.

Finches and Towhees pepper the air with trills, but they somehow always end up being the backdrop to the coarse cawing and heckles of crows and bluejays, who find it necessary to “comment” on every move one makes.

Moreover, as the title of this post suggests, I have learned that birdlife here is a constant round of gossip, fighting, harassment, dive-bombing, and ambush. Not to mention murder and mayhem. Gophers, watch out! Only yesterday, I spied a hawk swoop uncharacteristically under the oak tree limbs; a surprised vole, gripped in its talons, let out a pathetic little scream, as it was swept away.

(Just minutes after I finished writing this post, the boy next door showed me a little skull he found on the ground, probably belonging to a mouse or gopher. One hopes the little thing died peacefully of old age, but more likely it was ambushed by a raptor or a cat.)

The field in front of my house is a raptor’s paradise twice a year, when the tall grass is mowed, leaving the rodents vulnerable to their preying eyes. The tall, stately sycamore in the middle of the field is the prize perch, and jealous crows often harass the two hawks who have secured the tree as their own–primarily for its 360 degree view of the whole field; their nest is located in the safety of the hidden, leafy branches of the eucalyptus grove nearby. The kites, too, occasionally make runs at the sycamore, perhaps feeling obligated to try.

I have to hand it to those hawks. They must be pretty tough and vigilant to maintain their stand. Have you ever had a close look at a hawk’s beak? Curved and needle sharp at the end, they are perfect for puncturing and ripping. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of that thing.

The crows dominate the area, generally, through sheer size and numbers. They are the punx of the neighborhood, strutting about, gathering together in small or large groups, and heckling everyone. They have a well-developed, loud communication system that signals whenever a hawk or other large bird is flying too near a rookery, or when a human is tossing an apple core out the door–or about to rev up the mower.

I’ve also learned that crows have a wider range of vocalization than just “caws.” They have shouts, barks, meows, and a whiny complaint, that makes me want to shut the window. You’d think that with their talent they would develop a few sweet trills, like their songbird neighbors–but no.

While crows have wonderful–if irritating–communication skills, they occasionally will gang up on each other, or get into fights. The authors of In the Company of Crows and Ravens state that crows have been known to attack a human walking under their tree–although usually, they just swoop down and ruffle your hair, or knock off your cap. I haven’t experienced this personally, but I’m not surprised.

Still, that doesn’t stop me from occasionally tossing a few bread crumbs outdoors for them. I guess I just want to make sure that they’re on my side.

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One thought on “Murder & Mayhem in Birdpatch

  1. Great post, and I really like the rainbow picture. We are fortunate to have so much bird life around, but crows do give me the creeps. One year it seemed there was a sort of (major) crow conference near we we live. It went from fairly quite to all of a sudden hundreds of crows communicating loudly in between the pine trees, and flying, landing on ground, squawking. It was rather bizarre, and what made it really spooky was that it was Halloween!

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