Mobbing an Owl

My favorite chapter in The Book of Deadly Animals, probably for merely personal reasons, is the one on birds. A sample:

When one bird is under attack, or perceives its nest to be in danger, its neighbors may join it in harassing the attacker. I observed an instance of mobbing in my own yard recently. The snow came late this year, announced by a late flight of Canada geese calling in the night. In the November morning the snow was too warm to hold its shape until it hit the ground. The light seemed at once golden and soaked. 

As I passed by my kitchen window, an interesting movement snagged my eye. It was a great horned owl. It had been on the roof of the garage. The movement was its swooping hop into the lowest branch of a box elder tree. Within a minute or so, a big glistening crow landed nearby, higher and to the side. An untidy mass in the tree the size of a football might have been a crow’s nest. I had called to Tracy at first sight of the owl, and we watched, knowing what would come next. We didn’t hear the crow speak, but within seconds his friends had joined him in the tree. I didn’t think to count them; Tracy guessed they were 20. They set up a racket. Tracy wanted to open the window, but I wouldn’t let her for fear of scaring the birds away before they’d played out their drama.

“I’ve never heard them sound like that before,” she said.

The tree was bare, and the crows adorned it like notes on a treble clef. The tree next to it was also a box elder, but had somehow held onto a few of its jaundiced leaves longer. They hung down heavily in the damp, like scraps of drenched leather. 

The owl looked over his right shoulder, his head turning 120 degrees and then looking forward again, toward us. To me he seemed unconcerned; Tracy said he seemed worried. After a moment of racket during which he didn’t take the hint, a crow hopped down to a closer branch, about three feet from the owl. It seemed to me this was the big crow that had first called for help, though the crows looked too similar to let me feel sure.
The owl opened his wings with a rapid gesture so graceful it seemed slow. He soared over our patio with no visible effort. The crows were prompt to follow; they might as well have been attached to him with wires. They gabbled at him in voices like bedsprings. We ran barefoot, Tracy and I, out the back door to see the rest. As I stood on the porch steps looking up, the owl landed in a neighbor’s cottonwood tree. A dollop of slushy snow slid from my roof to pelt me in the eye, somehow missing the lens of my glasses. I staggered out to my yard, my good eye on the birds. My neighbor burst from his house to demand answers.

“Oh, it’s an owl,” he said, and stood watching. The crows had taken up stations above the owl in the cottonwood and had not abated their cries. After a few seconds he once again took flight, and I lost sight of him beyond my neighbor’s house. At that point I noticed how cold my feet were. Tracy and I went back inside, already telling each other the story, comparing the details we’d noticed. 


That chapter often surprises people. Who knew magpies could be such determined dive-bombers, or that ostrich farming can be lethal? For that matter, who knew anybody farmed ostriches? Anyway, I've cobbled together a set of antique illustrations of birds. All of these are minor dangers one way or another; you'll have to read the book to find out how. 

  1. Harpy eagle
  2. Great horned owl
  3. Bluejay
  4. Swan
  5. Wild turkey
  6. Robin
  7. Peacock
  8. Mockingbird
  9. Magpie
  10. Seagull
  11. Barn owl
  12. Red-winged blackbird
  13. Albatross


  1. A friend of mine who did extensive work in bird sanctuaries and zoos reports that some of the most unpleasant birds to work with from the standpoint of mobbing were the toucans, who would swoop uncomfortably close while squawking and occasionally aiming a jab at her head.

    My own personal additions to this list (though they weren't covered in the book) would be herons, which we've talked about elsewhere, and large parrots. The beak of a large cockatoo or macaw can break a finger--a child or small woman would probably lose the finger--or rip off part of a face with very little effort, and because a hand-reared one will identify with humans as sexual partners upon maturity, this leads to some rather unpleasant situations if somebody comes between the bird and its perceived "mate."

    1. I read once of a little girl who died after being bitten in the neck by a cockatoo...

      And I can testify of the jealousy part, as an aunt of mine had a male yellow headed amazon as a pet and every single boyfriend she ever had was in the bird's black book.

    2. PS- Almost forgot... I was in a cage with toucans as well and I can also testify that they do use their beaks like hammers. I don´t want to imagine what a hornbill could do with its beak.

    3. Fascinating. I once shared an apartment with cockatiel and his human. The bird was too small to be dangerous, but he did attack me whenever he had the chance, apparently from (unwarranted) jealousy. I can imagine the damage a more formidable bird could have accomplished.

  2. Felix Rodriguez de la Fuente had a lot of respect for the tawny owl (Strix aluco) as well. I translate this from one of his books:

    "About the size of a barn owl but with a much more robust appearance, the tawny owl posesses extraordinary strength and courage and is not afraid of facing the man who dares get near its chicks (...) Many who have tried have felt the powerful talons of the furious mother sinking on their back, and well known British wildlife photographer Eric Hosking suffered the tragedy of losing an eye when he climbed to a platform from which he planned to photograph a tawny owl nest".

    Hosking titled his autobiography "An Eye for a Bird"

    1. Interesting. Sounds like Hosking brought that on himself.

  3. I hadn't heard about the cockatoo killing a child, but it doesn't shock me, given that they can handle a Brazil nut or macadamia like we eat a nice ripe pear or apple. The cockatoos, out of all the parrots I've had dealings with, are the worst to take a bite from--their lower mandible usually has a notch or cusp, so you get a three-pronged bite, and they will often bite and latch on. During the breeding season, the cocks are extremely aggressive--they are often mate-abusive and a wise breeder will often leave the hen flighted and clip the cock's wings to ensure that she can escape him; otherwise the male may kill the hen.

    1. Interesting. Is killing the female an artifact of captivity?

      I was surprised to discover some years ago that male grizzlies sometimes kill females after mating with them. Not a good way to pass on one's genes.

    2. There don't appear to be any serious field studies done on the matter, but I would guess that situations where it actually gets as far as killing are an artifact of captivity; in the wild, where a female cockatoo would not be confined to a cage with the male, she can simply fly away and give her mate a chance to cool down.


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