A fight of feathered foes
By Amy Hughes
Last week, I enjoyed a sunny, winter hike over our trails. I am continually awestruck by the number of animal signs I see from Springbrook’s winter wildlife. Woodpeckers have destroyed old tree snags in search for insect larva that have burrowed inside, White-tailed Deer played peek-a-boo with me through the long grasses from their beds, and a River Otter has left its tracks across our frozen pond. Though I had initially gone in search for our Great Horned Owl that staff and our avid birding (human) visitors have spotted over the last few weeks, I was still immensely pleased and captivated by all of the things I had discovered.
Just as I began to have this long-winded, deep thought of the wonders of the natural world, I was abruptly interrupted by a murder of crows. (Yes, a group of crows is called a murder!) Cawing and flocking together, I figured by the noise there must have been about thirty of them. I followed them to a tall oak tree in our oak savanna, and saw crows perched with their wings spread wide-open and some hovering above. All were making a ruckus. Did one of them have food that the others wanted? Were they cheering over a dead animal to scavenge upon?
From my vantage point 100 yards from the tree, an even larger bird swooped out and the angry mob followed noisily. The crows had helped me find the Great Horned Owl! And what I encountered next is one of nature’s epic battles between an eternal pair of feathered foes: owls and crows.
Here in Minnesota, crow and owl habitats certainly overlap, though their living patterns are typically not supposed to. Owls are nocturnal, while crows are diurnal, awake in the day and asleep at night. Owls, being nocturnal, will hunt their chicks from the nest, and have even been known to target roosting crows at night. In the daylight, crows have the upper hand, fiercely defending their territory and nests. If an owl is spotted, they’ve been known to harass, peck, and chase the owl, sometimes for hours, and sometimes to the death. Even crow fledglings that have never seen an owl will instinctively and aggressively demonstrate their dislike.
With strength in numbers, noise, and simply being awake during daytime, this mob likely spotted the Great Horned Owl in its roost and decided to wake him up and flush him away.
I followed this owl and crow mob for over fifteen minutes. The crows would flush the owl out of a tree, chase it, corner it, chase it into another tree, and so on. Some crows left, while other joined, but the cacophony of cawing never stopped. Perhaps a final attempt to rid itself of the mob, the Great Horned Owl took off, and flew south over our Nature Center toward another grove of trees and out of sight.
Though the temperatures are low, our animal signs are abundant at Springbrook Nature Center—especially with the new layer of snow! As you hit our trails, on foot or snowshoes (that you can rent from us!), follow the crows, and you may be able to also witness a fight of feathered foes.
Amy Hughes is an interpretive naturalist at Springbrook Nature Center, 100 85th Ave. NW in Fridley. Director Mike Maher welcomes comments at [email protected] or 763-572-3589. Go to springbrooknaturecenter.org for more information.