Birds know something I don’t know. That keeps me endlessly curious. For instance, I went to visit the rare northern hawk-owl in Lincoln two weeks ago. He’s been hanging around for a couple of months. He can play hard to get on some days, but on this day he was plainly obvious from a distance, standing tall and proud at the tippy top of a large pine. As my car approached, I could see him from a quarter mile away and I knew from his posture that he was the oddity I was seeking.
A week passed, and I began to wonder: how could a fearsome predator sit up at the top of that tree and not be bothered? Smaller birds don’t like owls in the neighborhood, and if it had been any other owl, I would have expected it to be mobbed by crows trying to drive it out. What did he know that I didn’t?
What did the crows know?
I made some guesses, and disliked them all. Crows have no young or nests to protect in mid-winter, so maybe they don’t care. However, they do harass other owls in winter. Maybe the crows are only concerned about our familiar species, so they don’t see arctic owls as a threat. Yet they’ve been seen mobbing snowy owls in Maine this winter. Since the hawk-owl is smallish, merely the size of a crow, perhaps the crows don’t feel threatened. But a hawk-owl sometimes preys on grouse, which are about equal in size to a crow. Maybe crows are more upset by nocturnal hunters, and the hawk-owl spends much of its time hunting in daylight. But they hunt at night, too.
Every one of my “maybes” had a “but.” Maybe it was just coincidence and the crows didn’t happen to be around at the time. But I’ve seen hawk-owls before, always at the top of a tree, always undisturbed by crows. Maybe the crows know that the hawk-owl preys primarily on rodents. But hawk-owls will take a bird now and then, and surely the crows would notice.
I’m left with one plausible explanation, and it’s an explanation that applies to a number of birds: attitude. Some birds are simply comfortable at the tops of trees and show no fear of being an easy target. Maine’s larger flycatchers, such as great-crested and olive-sided, as well as eastern kingbirds, always perch prominently. Perhaps it is because the benefit of sitting where food can be more easily seen outweighs the danger of being seen as food yourself. More likely, it is because they are spry, bold, and have an attitude. Both the flycatchers and the hawks know that the flycatcher can dodge attacks and will then chase an attacker to the horizon if you mess with him.
Northern shrikes are about the size of blue jays and customarily perch at the tops of trees. It is such a common behavior for shrikes that I was shocked to see one perched below the treetop this week.
Great horned owls perch at the tops of trees. Barred owls don’t. The great horned owl fears nothing, but the smaller barred owl fears the great horned. It is reluctant to make itself an easy target. The northern hawk-owl is even smaller than the barred owl, yet it shows no such fear. The hawk-owl is a true owl, but shares many hawkish characteristics. It has a longer tail and flies with more speed and agility than most owls. Like the northern shrike, it can dodge attacks and harass the attacker. I’m guessing the other owls know it, and the crows know it, too.
Still, I’m only guessing. Bird behavior is fascinating because the behavior patterns are clearly visible, yet they aren’t always explainable. The birds know something you don’t. Sportsmen are especially fascinated by bird behavior. Ask any duck hunter.
Once an experienced birder becomes attuned to certain behavior patterns, it often makes distant identification easier. What a bird eats determines how it flies. How a bird defends itself determines whether it challenges or hides from a predator, and thus where it perches. It all starts with asking yourself the question: why is the bird doing that?
By the way, today’s photo of the hawk-owl in Lincoln was taken through a spotting scope at a considerable distance. Any owl in winter is stressed by food shortage, and rare owls from northern Canada are particularly susceptible. I don’t crowd them.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.