Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Thoughts fly from pines to crows and stoic owls

By STACEY COLE December 15. 2017 11:46PM
A barred owl rests on top of a broken tree trunk. (Courtesy)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2007.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words perhaps best describe the feeling of relaxation that I feel when I start out for a walk in the woods: “How easily we might walk onward into the opening landscape, absorbed by new pictures and by thoughts fast succeeding each other, until by degrees the recollection of home was crowded out of the mind ... and we were led in triumph by nature.”

To get there, I walk a field’s edge, proceed through a pasture gate and along a lane to where the woods begin.

Invariably, I stop and look upward to the tallness of my pines. I look to see how much growth they have gained since I passed this way before. And then I scan the area to see if our crows have left a sentinel — a watchman to speak out a warning at any sign of potential danger. Crows customarily do that when one or more of their band wishes to feed on the meadow.

The way I go to enter the woods often protects me from a sentinel’s vision. I enjoy that, for it nurtures in me a basic hunting instinct in an attempt to fool my adversary. More often than not, though, it is I who am made the fool by my crow flock. (I don’t know why I used the possessive for it is not possible for man to possess a flock of crows.)

Crows maintain considerable dignity atop a pine. When a high wind rises, they clutch to the bending tree, throwing out one wing and sometimes both to balance the strength of the gust. These birds are not easily dislodged. But I have seen them give up the fight when faced with a persistent wind and retire to a more sheltered place after so much buffeting.

I enjoy watching crows in flight during a storm. They rise and fall and are then sped along their way — occasionally stopped and held momentarily hanging in space and eventually being allowed to pass.

Occasionally, a crow will utter a complaining “caw.” Hardly more than that, nor do they appear to hold a grudge against a passing storm.

Crows do, however, hold a grudge against an owl. The size of an owl makes no difference to them; they just don’t like them. Crows become just as disturbed at the sight of a tiny screech owl as when they discover a great-horned owl. What a hubbub they create! One can hear their protest for miles.

I once came upon a flock of crows that were engaged in a heated discussion with a barred owl. At least 20 crows made up the crow delegation. You might think that such a number of screaming birds would have caused the owl to cringe with fear. Not so. I came upon the disturbance from some distance, having been aroused by the cacophony. With a fair amount of caution, I worked my way beneath the tree shelter to a point within 25 feet from the intended victim. There it sat as upright as a barred owl can, its large circled face with its great staring eyes wide open. It held its ground as it sat close to the tree trunk and never seemed to blink as one after another of the mobbing crows attacked. From my vantage point, I could see whenever an individual crow flew at it, the owl simply ducked its head. Throughout the battle the owl retained its dignity and a steady, unrelenting glare.

Whenever owls are provoked, they often hiss and snap their beaks at whoever and whatever is annoying them. This barred owl didn’t even bother. When an aggressor comes too close, a large owl has the ability to lash out with one of its powerful talons and rake an offender from the sky.

Most mobbing crows know of this possibility and veer off just before hitting an owl but a crow that doesn’t — hard luck Charlie!

I remained at the scene for nearly an hour, and during that time the crow flock occasionally quieted down for a few moments. The quiet before the storm, so’s to speak. Shortly, one crow and then another continued the attack.

As the owl continued to hold its ground, a few crows tired of the battle and drifted away toward the western hill. Finally, the fracas ended and quiet set in. The owl closed its eyes and drifted off to sleep, and I stealthily left the area.

Emerson was right — recollections are crowded out of the mind by the triumph of nature.

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From Dover comes a Thanksgiving note that reads in part: “I often think if we humans take a few minutes now and then to contemplate the other species around us and marvel at how they all have their own characteristics of living and entertaining us, things in the world would be better.”

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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