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Archive for the ‘eagle’ Category

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.

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The other night, I was lying on the futon when I noticed our parrots going absolutely rigid. Unlike their usual habit, when they see a crow or a seagull, they were not calling out. They were making small, disturbed chirps, and their feathers were tight against their bodies – a sure sign of agitation.

Looking outside, I couldn’t see any reason for their disturbance at first. Then I noticed crows and smaller birds streaking low into the trees, and I realized a predator must be in the neighborhood. Sure enough, after a moment, I spotted a bald eagle perched atop tree about a hundred meters from the window.

Most of what I could see with my unaided eyes was a black silhouette, since it was less than twenty minutes before sunset. Still, there was no mistaking what I was seeing. Although I had nothing I could compare the silhouette with to be sure of its size, the general outline was nothing like the crows that usually sit on that perch. It was longer and thinner. It didn’t move like a crow, either. It kept peering this way and that with a jerk of the head that was most uncrow-like, and fanning and unfanning its tail.

Nor could the avian reactions, both outside or in leave me with any doubt that I was seeing a predator. Outside, I could see more silhouettes streaking low across the sky behind the eagle towards shelter. Nearby, the usual sounds as the birds go to roost were completely missing from the night. Inside, our parrots were tense and straining forward to keep an eye on the visitor, ignoring everything else.

What interested me about the parrots’ reaction was that they had no trouble recognizing a predator when they saw one. Of our four parrots, at least one was taken from the wild as a baby, and one was born in our living room, and neither of them could have had any personal experience of raptors, yet both reacted exactly the same as the other two. Of course, nanday conures are a flock species, and alarms and greetings spread quickly, even between parrots who don’t like each other. Yet it seems clear that, at some instinctual level, they knew a predator when they saw one.

At the same time, the two on the futon were not so alarmed that they panicked. On some level, they seemed to know that they were far enough away not to be a main target. Possibly, too, they were aware of the window between them and the eagle; one of the first bits of training we do with all our birds is introduce them to the window, so that they don’t fly into it by accident. Instead of backing slowly away, as I half-expected, they not only stayed where they were, but actually moved forward a bit, craning, to get a better view. In other words, they were on alert, but seemed aware that they were safe. Perhaps what I was seeing was instinct and intelligence fighting for control.

After about five minutes, the eagle stirred abruptly, seeming to fall rather than fly from its perch. I soon found out why: a half dozen crows were charging it. A predator can make short work of a single crow, but a determined flock of crows outhinks and outguns it, and this eagle was obviously experienced enough not to challenge its attackers. Now its turn had come to seek shelter, and the last I saw, it was flapping furiously, trying to outdistance the crows and not having much luck.

The crows, no doubt, had a strong incentive. This past ten days or so, the first of this year’s baby crows have been taking their first flying lessons, leaving many of them stranded permanently or temporarily on the ground, or on remote perches without being quite sure how to get back to the nest. I had been dive-bombed several times myself because of my curiosity, and no doubt the eagle, for whom the crow fledglings provide an easy meal, had raised the ire of the adults.

Given the timing, you can almost imagine the adult crows acting like a fighter squadron, scrambling to get a response into the air as soon as possible to confront the danger. When you consider crows’ intelligence and social organization, that metaphor might even be a reasonably literal description of what happened.

With the eagle gone, our parrots relaxed almost instantly – another sign, I suppose, that they know exactly what a predator is. As for me, I was left with both a gut-level awareness of the eagle as predator and our parrots as prey species that I had never had before. And, for all my fascination with observing the reactions, I found that I was relaxing too, along with the rest of my flock.

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