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.
- Harpy eagle
- Great horned owl
- Wild turkey
- Barn owl
- Red-winged blackbird