Southern Birds

You never heard such a racket. A murder of crows in attack mode circled a pine in the woods fronting Mom’s house. Something serious was drawing their ire. The fury of their crowing stopped me from working on a fountain to investigate. High above a hawk dive-bombed the crows, scattering them temporarily. A battle between raptors and crows was underway.

A Wise Juvenile Great Horned Owl Fallen into the hands of man for a while
A Wise Juvenile Great Horned Owl

For several days, the crows continued to harass some target in the same spot, and I walked into the woods to investigate. I could see nothing other than pine limbs and blue Georgia sky. I forgot abut this aerial warfare, and then the April 5 storm toppled trees, downed power lines, and plunged the county into darkness. People, however, weren’t the only recipients of the storms’ fury.

The storm toppled a pine in my sister’s front woods. Two days later, Mom found an owl in her yard, and the mystery of the raucous crows began to clear. Crows and owls, in case you don’t know, get along like the Hatfields and McCoys.

And the owl Mom found in her yard? It stood its ground as she walked around unsure just what to do. She called me. None of what she had seen made sense. Owls rarely come out in broad daylight and they sure don’t stand around in yards when humans approach them.

Two possibilities existed: the owl was injured, a victim of winds and toppled trees or it was a juvenile incapable of flight blown from its nest. Either way, the storm was to blame.

After calls to the Georgia DNR, we learned the owl would be euthanized if it was unable to fly and fend for itself. That news sent my sister, Deb, into action. She located a raptor rehabilitator in Augusta, and she and her friend, Teresa, caught the owl, which they named “Buddy,” gently placed it in a cat carrier, and covered it with a towel. Then it was off to Augusta to Dr. T. L. Walker at Highland Animal Hospital.

Dr. Walker found the owl, a juvenile, a bit battered from the storm but in good shape otherwise and about 10 days away from being able to fly. He advised Deb to take the owl back to where it was found and place it on a tree limb 15 feet off the ground. He told her he thought it was a barred owl but some photo comparisons and the crows’ behavior tipped me off that it’s a juvenile Great Horned Owl.

Deb did as Walker advised and the bird hasn’t been seen since. Hopefully all is well. And what about those irascible crows? What were they up to? No good it’s easy to think, but maybe they were within their rights.

People just don’t seem to like crows. This disdain for crows is so prevalent that writer, Kathy Berhnardt, wrote a feature on crows defending them. In “Crows: The Bad Boys of Birding,” she penned a persuasive piece that sheds a favorable light on crows.

“Crows,” she wrote, “are the victims of a lot of bad press. Deemed nuisance birds, destructive to crops and exceptionally messy in large groups, they have been persecuted and hunted for hundreds of years. Even our language treats them with disdain. The expression ‘to eat crow’ means to do something disagreeable. To ‘crow’ is to brag obnoxiously. Wrinkles around the eyes are called ‘crows-feet.’ A flock is known as a ‘murder’ of crows. Their cousin, the raven, spawned the word ‘ravenous,’ meaning extremely hungry or greedy, and ‘ravage,’ meaning to destroy or plunder.”

She wrote something, too, that further cleared the air on the murder of crows raising holy Hades in Mom’s woods for the better part of a week. “Crows especially hate Great Horned Owls, their main predator, and take particular delight in harassing these hapless raptors as they nap during the day, often calling in friends to participate in the chase. The few predators that crows, especially fledglings, might face (besides unfriendly humans) are raptors. Adult crows often participate in a behavior known as mobbing, in which they drive the threatening bird out by chasing it en masse. This may also be a means of demonstrating to young crows ‘this is what trouble looks like.’ ”

Things made sense now. Prior to the storm, the crows were harassing the mother owl, hoping to drive out the enemy, and then along comes a squall line that does the job for them. Quarrels, battles, and wars over territorial rights aren’t confined to humans are they. I find this crow and owl war fascinating, having spent nine years working for the South Carolina DNR.

Birds of prey, especially, interest me. When I made wildlife films back in the 1980s, we filmed ospreys and hawks with relative ease. Getting shots of bald eagles in habitat was more difficult and getting shots of owls was impossible. It’s hard to film at night.

We have beautiful birds of prey in the South, among them the rare and majestic swallow-tailed kite. If you see one, you’ll never forget it. With a scissor-like tail and tuxedo-like plumage, it strikes a handsome figure in the air.

Other than the Bald Eagle, the Great Horned Owl rules the roost. According to ornithologists, the Great Horned Owl is the only owl known to kill a human. I have no details but research infers the owl attacked a curious person climbing a tree to get a better look at its nest. The curiosity seeker fell to his death.

I can see that happening. I recall seeing a neighbor run for his life when a mockingbird repeatedly pecked him in the head. A mocking bird! Territorial nesting birds sure can put us in the wind.

I like birds and I have great memories of raptors. Seeing a swallow-tailed kite soar over Lowcountry ricefields stands at the top. Seeing an osprey plunge into an estuary and fly off with a silvery fish flashing in the sun is another good one. I’ve seen a good many Bald Eagles but to me, that bird gets more glory that it should.

I remember, too, when raptor rehabilitators released a red-shouldered hawk after weeks of mending its broken wing. We watched in amazement as the hawk circled a field only to plummet three times to the ground, rising each time with a field mouse in its talons. The last time I came to Lincolnton, an osprey soared over me as I crossed the lake from Columbia County. It carried a large stick, bound for the nest it was building. I’ll remember that too.

Where is Buddy now? Well we don’t know, but perhaps he will soon take his place in the night sky. Maybe some night when a full moon shines with brilliance, a Great Horned Owl, a predatory silhouette, may fly across the moon’s face doing what it does best: seeking prey in the great cycle of life and death that defines the world of wildlife.

One more detail about Great Horned Owls and it’s a pertinent one. They like to take over crow nests as their own. Maybe that was what had happened in the woods between my sister and Mom’s homes. A battle of birdbrains ensued. Highly intelligent crows declared war on the wise owl for stealing a comrade’s nest and then fate intervened. A storm toppled the nest tree, evicting the juvenile owl. Then man intervened, helping that juvenile owl, perhaps, to survive to squabble with other crows in springs to come.

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Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]