I live near the greenbelt surrounding Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Mountain campus. As a result, I see more wildlife than most suburbanites in my daily routine.
The neighborhood is full of coyotes who have learned not to cross the roads against the traffic flow, and red-tailed hawks who perch on lamp posts, waiting endlessly for road-kill. Every year or two, a mountain lion or bear swims across the inlet and causes a panic, and the mountain used to support a pair of ravens (and possibly still does). And all of this is in addition to the usual squirrels, song birds and seagulls that you can find anywhere in the urban sprawl.
However, by far the most dramatic manifestation of living on the border between the city and the wilderness is when a bald eagle comes hunting in my townhouse complex, and the crows counter-attack in defense of their nests.
It usually happens in late June or July, when this years’ offspring are just leaving the nest. The first sign that a predator is in the area is the suddenly silence outside. If I go to the window, all the smaller birds are flying within ten meters of the ground, darting into the thicker, lower branches of the trees.
From the directions they are coming from, I usually have no trouble locating the eagle, sitting on some high perch, always looking larger than seems possible, and with the mad gleam of a single-minded predator in its eye. Even though eagles rarely attack humans, it’s a sight that’s as frightening as it is magnificent.
The crows take part in the general exodus. But, as soon as they have found shelter – or perhaps checked that their fledglings are safe – they start calling to each other.
Apart from being louder and more alarmed, their calls sound no different than usual to me. Yet the calls obviously mean something to the crows, because, after a few minutes, they rise to confront the eagle, like Spitfire pilots during the Battle of Britain.
The crows, of course, lack the talons and beaks of the eagle, and are fighting well above their weight. However, they fight as a team – and that makes all the difference.
The crows attack from all sides, never staying still, flying at the eagle but always veering away at the last moment. The eagle no sooner focuses attention on one or two crows than they have moved out of the way, taking temporary shelter in the lower, thicker branches that the eagle has trouble squeezing between. Meanwhile, more crows are dive-bombing it from another direction, and the eagle has to whirl about to keep an eye on them. No sooner has it done so than more crows have moved in from yet another side. There are always dozens of crows, so they have no trouble keeping up their attacks indefinitely.
Usually, though, they don’t have to. Within moments, the eagle has been reduced from predator to fugitive. Abandoning its efforts to attack, it looks for a refuge in the trees, never finding one, since crows can maneuver anywhere it can. Within twenty minutes, it is crashing from tree to tree, trying to escape. Meanwhile, behind it, crows keep rising to meet it, then returning to shelter for a temporary rest while other crows take up the fight.
Once, when walking up to the corner store, I saw one of these attacks about twenty meters above me. From the way its feathers were plastered tight against its body, I could tell that the eagle was not only bewildered, but actually terrified as it was driven from shelter after shelter, never getting enough of a respite to counter-attack.
I half-wondered if the eagle might be so confused that it would attack me, or if the crows in their anger would see me as another intruder and deal with me the same way, but neither of these things happened. Instead, the eagle continued careening from tree to tree, disappearing into the distance while from every tree around me, crows were calling in anger. I tried not to think of Hitchcock’s The Birds, and continued on my errand as the fight moved gradually further away.