Sharp-shinned Hawk and Crows

I walked down to Merrill Rock along the new sea walk that goes from the main Crescent Harbor parking lot down nearly to Totem Park. It is nearing completion in several sections, but still has a bit of work to go in others (especially between Sage Beach and Kelly Street). I was about to walk up through the old SJ family housing, but noticed a bird call that didn’t sound very familiar, and headed back down Lincoln Street to check it out.

As I neared Kelly Street I caught sight of a small raptor flying in the trees on the town side of Kelly Street, and also noted a handful of crows. A few minutes before I noticed these birds interacting, I had seen 50 or more crows flying from over the trees at Totem Park, then parallel to the shore and out of sight (I later saw quite a few crows at the tennis courts, and suspect that is where they had ended up). I am uncertain whether this handful of crows at Kelly Street were part of that group, but I suspect they were.

Most of the times I’ve seen crows interacting with a raptor, they mob it – diving at it if it’s perched until it flies, then chasing it off until they get tired of the pursuit. In this case that wasn’t happening. Over the several minutes I watched, the interactions seemed to follow a pattern – the juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk would be perched in a tree with 4 or 5 crows scattered around perched in other trees nearby, but not particularly close. Sometimes it seemed like the crows might not be sure where the hawk was, other times they seemed more indifferent. The hawk might fly between branches to another perch, usually staying within the cover of a tree, but before too long passed, the hawk would fly at one of the perched crows and give it chase. At this point the targeted crow would fly off, often diving down and changing directions quickly, apparently working hard to elude the hawk, and the other crows would come in and give chase to the hawk.

The hawk was no larger than the crows, and may have been a bit smaller. When chasing a crow, they were moving so quickly it was a little hard to tell how close they got, but a couple of times it looked almost like it might have come close to grabbing a tail feather. The direct chase only lasted a second or two, then the hawk would peel off. It seemed to usually by chased by the other crows, who at least once seemed to nip at the hawks tail feathers, though again, with the fast movement in and around trees, it was hard to tell. The hawk would then fly into a tree and perch, with the crows once again landing on branches in other nearby trees. Then the pattern would be repeat.

I watched this happen at least 4 or 5 times before they moved off into the trees behind Kelly Street again and became harder to track in the taller more extensive patch of woods. I’m not really sure what to make of the interaction, but it sure gave the impression that they were playing some sort of (possibly high-stakes) tag. The hawk appeared to be a juvenile, though I’m not sure about the age of the crows. It seemed like the crows could have flown off and joined the larger flock just down the street at any time. They also didn’t seem to be aggressively mobbing the hawk to drive it away. I’ve previously observed a juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk going after a Steller’s Jay, where the jay showed little fear of the hawk. It would just duck when the hawk approached, and that seemed to be enough. At the time I thought the hawk was learning that jays were too big, but later I heard that adults Sharp-shinned Hawks will take jays. I wonder if in this case the crows just thought it would be fun to tease a young hawk, and the hawk wasn’t realizing that it was outmatched by the crows.

As a side note, while it was mostly quiet except for an occasional call by the hawk (which it turns out was what had caught my attention in the first place) or the crows, near the end I did notice a Fox Sparrow and then a Song Sparrow in the shrubs hunkered down a little bit (though not as much as I would have expected, considering the presence of an accipiter) making a little bit of a call. That didn’t last long until the Fox Sparrow seemed to chase the Song Sparrow off – though by that time the hawk and crows had moved up to the larger trees further away.

4 thoughts on “Sharp-shinned Hawk and Crows”

  1. Hi, Matt: I’ve seen the crows and a local sharpie in my neighborhood playing the same sorts of games. One minute a crow is darting by, making almost mocking whiney noises as he dodges the sharpie on his tail. Next thing it’s the sharpie screeching as he flees a crow or two. Then they all sit in a tree, and then the whole thing all over. Mostly I’ve seen this in the early spring. In the winter everyone seems more serious. My thought was that this sort of play benefits both parties, who get to practice their moves in a kind of even game. I’m pretty sure the crows in my party were yearlings or so. I’m glad you took the time to write about it, because until now I had not heard of anyone else witnessing this. Regards, Leha

  2. Hello Leha – thanks for sharing your story. The time I’ve described is (so far) the only time I’ve noticed this kind of interaction with crows and a Sharp-shinned Hawk. I did previously watch a Steller’s Jay be unconcerned with a young sharpie, but in that case the jay seemed to treat the hawk as more of a nuisance. I hadn’t thought about whether the crows might have been young birds. If I notice this behavior in the future I’ll try to figure out if the crows do seem like younger birds. Thanks!

  3. Hi Matt,

    This is a very insightful and detailed story that matches my experiences as well. I have seen this pattern not only with a supporters, also with other species of hawks and owls.

    Also, thank you to Leha for the story as well.



  4. Thank you for your commentaries! I have been noticing interaction between my neighbourhood crows and a sharp shinned hawk that matches these descriptions. The crows will gather near my driveway daily – perhaps 8 of them (they’ve taught me to give them peanuts), and lately a sharp shinned hawk has shown up and zips around them. Sometimes they will play some chase. It’s obvious they are interacting, and they don’t seem afraid of each other. Looks like this is an observed situation! Best, Marta

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