When crows become eagles

Mob violence in Seattle, on the wing. It's a bird-eat-bird world out there.

Mob violence in Seattle, on the wing. It's a bird-eat-bird world out there.

On a recent afternoon, a raging dogfight blazed across the sky, a hundred feet or two above Queen Anne Hill. Four agile black fighters swooped, dove, darted, and rolled, harrying a powerful craft many times their size.  The prey climbed, dropped, and pivoted as best it could, trying vainly to shake them off. But its maneuvers were lumbering next to theirs. They never missed a beat, staying so close and wheeling so fast that their larger foe could not train its weapons on them.

Finally the eagle disappeared behind the firs and cedars in a cemetery, with the crows still in pursuit.

A few years ago a murder of crows mobbing an eagle was a novel spectacle in Seattle. It’s still spectacular, but it’s hardly novel now. Bald eagles are the comeback poster kids of conservation; 50 years after DDT and hunters nearly extirpated them from the Lower 48, more than a thousand roost around Puget Sound and this state’s other waterways. Their nemesis now is not homo sapiens but the crows that have meanwhile multiplied by the tens of thousands, thriving in the jumbled, disturbed landscapes we create.

Some days it’s hard not to think this is the crows’ city and we just live in it, so cockily do they preside over our backyards and roadsides. Like Pashtuns and Sicilians, they’re famously loyal to their clans and fierce toward their foes, whose ranks include anyone they think has tried to menace their nests or offspring. Once I stared too long at a crow sitting dazed on a car hood downtown — probably a fledgling resting from its maiden flight, I later learned. Its mom or dad pursued me for blocks, till I ducked into a building, raking my scalp and squawking, “Stay away from my kid, pervert!” in crowspeak.

I was lucky that irate parent didn’t call in the brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles and form a squadron. Such treatment is reserved for the eagles, who are doubtless much more effective nest raiders than I am. Only four crows chased that hapless raptor over Queen Anne, but I’ve seen more than 20 mobbing another near Seward Park.

Not that we should fret too much over the poor eagles. It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there, and the birds Seattle’s eagles most relish are the chicks and eggs of another jumbo-sized avian urbanite, the great blue heron. So much so that raiding eagles have done for this area’s heron colonies what subprime loans and the housing bust have done for home ownership. They’ve even busted up what was the largest colony, in a thick stand of cottonwoods in Renton’s Black River Riparian Forest. And that brings us back to the crows.…

Crow couples nest alone, but they’re the original social networkers, forever keeping tabs and sharing news with the rest of their flock. They’re always ready to muster to repel an invader, just like Thomas Jefferson’s yeoman militia.

Herons are more like a modern urban polity. They nest in dense, close-packed, clattering conclaves/condominiums; the noise of more than a hundred breeding pairs in the Black River wetland was deafening. You’d think such numbers would bring the herons a measure of security; after all, they’re bigger than crows, and even though they’re not so agile in the air, their lance-like beaks seem fearsome enough to discourage even an eagle.

Not so; one by one a pair of eagles that heron-watchers dubbed “Bonnie and Clyde” raided the Black River nests with impunity, while scores of other herons fled or fretted, squawking uselessly; today only a handful remain. For all their communal proximity, herons are sadly short on cohesion and cooperation. Their family ties are weak; where crows and eagles mate for life, herons are serial monogamists, picking new mates each spring. They are like mobile modern citydwellers, who scarcely know the neighbors they’re packed up next to, and certainly wouldn’t risk their lives for them. They are the original lonely crowd.

Crows, by contrast, deserve more respect than they’ve gotten. For decades their black plumage made them figures of racist stereotype; remember Disney’s Heckle and Jeckle, or the crow bro's in Fritz the Cat? Now they’re snubbed as “rats with feathers.” But their spunkiness and solidarity, their genius for banding together against bigger enemies, are the stuff of Lexington, Concord, and the Alamo. If Ben Franklin had paid more attention he might have nominated the common crow rather than that dumb, tasty wild turkey for national bird.

But even crows can get their comeuppance. There’s always a faster gun out there, an upstart yapping at our heels or tail. Crows are bigtime nest raiders themselves, and smaller birds know it. A while back, over the same corner of Queen Anne, I saw a flock of robins mobbing a crow. For a moment there, as he wheeled and dove and failed to shake them, the crow looked like an eagle.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.