Crows bring people gifts.
The gifts most often talked about are the tangible kind — little bits and bobs left by crows for their human friends, seemingly in gratitude for peanuts or other treats.
But the bigger gift they give, for me at least, is their habit of yelling at me “Oi, you! Yes — you! Come over here and have a look at this, right now!” on a regular basis.
When I hear the crows making a ruckus I always, if I possibly can, change plans and go see what it’s all about.
Invariably, it’s something.
Occasionally, it’s something amazing.
Always worth the diversion!
Yesterday, Geordie and I set out on the morning walk, following the usual route to say hi to the Walkers and Wings when crows from near and far started flying over us to a tree a couple of blocks north. They were kicking up a crowcophany audible around the neighbourhood.
Naturally, we immediately made a sharp detour to see what was going on.
I peered at the tree from a variety of angles but couldn’t see what the fuss was about until a woman walking by on the other side of the road said she could see something —maybe an owl!
Not only was it an owl, it was an owl with what looked like ENORMOUS ears. I had a quick look at my Sibley’s bird guide phone app and thought that ears of this magnitude could only belong to the aptly named Long-eared Owl. But, reading on, I saw they were “rare or uncommon” — so that didn’t seem too likely for an urban East Vancouver street tree.
Various other neighbours, of the human variety, stopped by to see what the crow noise was about and we all gazed up into the branches. It was a “Where’s Waldo” situation as the owl was so well camouflaged, and the tree so big, that if you took your eyes off it for a moment it was really hard to locate again.
After about half an hour, most of the crows moved on to other crow business, leaving just the local family to keep an eye on the owl interloper. They would ignore the visitor for a while, pecking around nearby lawns in search of worms and then come back every 15 minutes or so for some pro forma cawing — just in case the owl was getting ideas.
Here’s how All About Birds describes the Long-eared Owl …
Long-eared Owls are lanky owls that often seem to wear a surprised expression thanks to long ear tufts that typically point straight up like exclamation marks. These nocturnal hunters roost in dense foliage, where their camouflage makes them hard to find, and forage over grasslands for small mammals. Long-eared Owls are nimble flyers, with hearing so acute they can snatch prey in complete darkness. In spring and summer, listen for their low, breathy hoots and strange barking calls in the night.
Surprised expression … check!
All owls excel at looking surprised, but this one definitely earned top marks for channeling pure astonishment.
Long ear tufts like exclamation marks … check!
These aren’t the owl’s real ears — just rather spectacular feather tufts (called plumicorns) that are used to funnel sound into the actual ears, which are cavities asymmetrically positioned on each side of the head. This asymmetry enables the Long-eared owl to hone in on prey by sound alone. The location of the tiniest sound (a leaf or blade of grass rustling, a small movement under a foot of snow) is narrowed down by the way the sounds arrive at each ear cavity at minutely different times, telling the bird whether dinner is to the left or right, up or down.
If you’d like to read more about the marvel of owl hearing and navigation, there are all kinds of amazing articles available. Owls and Owl Hearing is one of them.
Hey, check out my groovy plumicorns!
Owls always seem relatively relaxed when mobbed by crows. This owl was pretty small — about the same size as the crows, so you’d think they might feel threatened.
A glance at the heft of the their feet and the dagger-like sharpness of those claws may give a clue to why they seem so unworried by the crow clamour.
I’m not sure why this lovely owl was caught out in the open in the daylight like this. Perhaps they got carried away with hunting the night before and didn’t leave enough time to get to a more private place for day-time rest. We went back this morning to see if he or she was still there — which would have been worrying — but saw no sign of them.
I hope, like the barred owl that rested in a tree in front of our house for a whole day a few years ago, this Long-eared relative just waited until dusk until it was time to fly off into the darkness and become a hunting ghost — and that, today, they’re sleeping peacefully in a more tranquil location.
Oh, and I’m pretty certain now, rare or not, this was in fact a Long-eared owl, bringing an amazing day to our rather urban little neighbourhood.
Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds section on Long-eared owls
This owl was so well camouflaged in the tree there’s no way at all I would have spotted him or her without the crows leading me.
I know the crows had their own reasons for kicking up a fuss — owls are on the crow “naughty list,” along with any other creature that will prey on adult or fledgling crows or eggs — and so will be mobbed by the well organized Crow Cooperative in order to encourage the danger to move on to less rowdy prey.
Crow don’t waste their energy on these loud protests, so it’s always worthwhile to go check them out. While helping us with birdwatching isn’t their goal, it’s a service they do offer if we’re willing to take the help.
Just happening to see amazing birds while watching crows is a little different from “regular” bird watching in that you have to wait for the sighting to come to you, rather than seeking it out.
And, when it does come, out of the blue, it feels more like a gift that a personal achievement.
Other “gifts” I’ve been given by following crows include a juvenile eagle, other owls, coyotes, raccoons, a peregrine falcon, hawks, ravens and, one especially miraculous day, a runaway dog that had been missing for six weeks.
You can read about some of these special events in earlier blog posts:
While that crow “wall of sound” can be a little irritating if you’re seeking peace and quiet, I do suggest that you occasionally give in to your curiosity and go see what it’s all about.
You never know, it might just be a rare owl sighting right outside your door!
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