Crows vs Owls: What is going on?

27 February 2017
Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl by Dan Tallman

Cats and mice, spiders and flies, and wolves and elk are all animals that we think of being arch-enemies of one another. But we can add another pair to our list: owls and crows. Anytime crows see an owl flying around they will harass it continually to try and keep the owl awake and annoyed. Although this seems cruel, the crows may not actually be the villains of our story, indeed, it is somewhat unclear who the true villain is. Regardless of which animal you support, the crow vs owl story is an interesting one to consider.

During the day crows will bother the owls that are perched somewhere sleeping, and at night the tables turn when the owls come out to hunt. Generally, owls do not predate crows. However, some of the larger breeds of owl (such as the great-horned owl) will opportunistically hunt young crows if they come upon them. While there does not appear to be a definitive answer among the scientific community about why crows expend energy mobbing owls, at any time other than during the breeding season when they are protecting their young, the prevailing theory is that crows have an innate dislike of owls and use their daylight advantage to torment their largest predator. Numerous studies have shown that crows are able to identify things that have attempted to harm them and have the ability to share that knowledge with the rest of the flock. Thus, if an owl has taken a pass at, or successfully killed a crow, the rest of the flock will likely learn about it and take the next opportunity to exact revenge, even if the attack did not happen recently. Some studies suggest that this mobbing behavior may reduce the likelihood of an owl killing a crow the next time it comes across one, which is a potential benefit to mobbing any owl a crow sees. The next time you hear a bunch of crows causing a tremendous ruckus on campus or in the Arboretum, they might be mobbing a tired owl trying to get some sleep.

This time of year is particularly important for owls because many of the owls in Minnesota are currently in their mating seasons. Generally speaking, owls are monogamous and will stay with their mate for at least the length of the breeding season. During this time they get very protective of their territory and will let out calls to make sure other owls stay away. Since they are particularly vocal in the spring, this is your chance to get into the Arboretum and try to hear some owl calls. However, if you do come across a sleeping owl in the Arb, try not to disturb it. If owls have to leave their perch, they may be driven away and kept awake by the crows, which could be detrimental to their breeding season.

If the owls of Minnesota have piqued your interest, the Minnesota DNR website and Arboretum website are both excellent resources. Additionally, The Owl Pages is a good place to go to learn about owls in a broader context.

–Alex Bynum ’18 for the Cole Student Naturalists

Photo credits: On this post – Dan Tallman (Great Horned Owl), teaser image – Eric Johnson (Barred Owl)

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Comments

  • 2018-12-07 11:53:53
    Bob

    I was just out walking my dogs and heard the racket, must have been 20 crows pestering an owl, the owl flew away and the crows chased it into the woods. This is in Eastern New Brunswick Canada, Dec 07,2018

     

    • 2022-12-12 01:07:17
      Tony

      Yeah yeah yeah well the owl started it

    • 2023-04-25 15:59:19
      Angela Painter

      There was an owl vs crow war in my yard this morning, the owl definitely WON! It took the head off of the crow and cleanly dropped it on my doorstep!🤢 The animal kingdom is WILD!
      The last time I witnessed something so savage was in Antarctica between an unfortunate penguin and a hungry Antarctic Petrel. I’m sure you can imagine how that one ended;-)

    • 2023-07-03 21:46:39
      Ryan

      Team OWL all the way!

    • 2023-12-20 21:35:24
      Robert

      During the late winter afternoon hours in Colorado, I chased away a flock of ravens from a tree. Also, in the tree was a Great Horned Owl, who was being pursued by the ravens. The funny thing is I had a similar encounter last year, same tree with ravens attacking a Horned Owl and me scaring away the ravens. Was it the same owl from last year, did I do the right thing by beating off the ravens and did I make a new friend with a Great Horned Owl?
      P.S. I have an affinity with all birds.

  • 2019-03-22 08:31:10
    Susan Wells Rollinson, '74

    This morning, at dawn, I witnessed crows mobbing a great horned owl in a tree outside my bedroom window. Imagine my surprise when I googled "owls and crows" and the second link was to my alma mater! The great horned owl is interesting -- we usually hear barred owls, and rarely a screech owl or saw-whet owl. I can't recall hearing a great horned owl in our woods. Thanks for the interesting info. Susan Wells Rollinson, '74 Clifton Forge, Virginia

  • 2019-04-15 21:54:20
    Barbara Doshi, 65

    I live in St. Louis County, MO and we have had barred owls in the common grounds in our neighborhood for at least 24 years. We so enjoy listening to them and do see them when the trees are bare. Today we had an interesting event happen. There were 5 or 6 crows loudly cawing at a poor juvenile owl who was just trying to get his sleep. This happened at around 5 pm. We had already been watching the owl for several hours and had taken several nice photos from our window. I did not feel that this little fellow deserved the attack, but as your article points out, there is no love loss between crows and owls for historical reasons. I so enjoyed your article and learned much. When we see these magnificent owls take flight it nearly takes our breath away due to their large wingspan as they scoop between our houses.

  • 2019-05-03 10:16:51
    Jeffrey Stenger

    So THAT'S the story.  So interesting.  We live in the middle 5 acres of a plus or minus 15 acre stand of old growth Oak and Hickory timber near Shelbyville, IL.  Over the past couple of years, we have enjoyed the call of Barred Owls, but this is the first spring where we are actually seeing them in our back woods.  My wife and I absolutely love hearing them flirt with one another and now we've finally been able to watch them as well.  This morning, we witnessed exactly what you have written about above, which is what brought me to search this behavior.  I certainly have a favorite in this natural conflict and it isn't the crows.  LEAVE OUR OWLS ALONE!!!

     

  • 2019-05-20 18:56:09
    Janet Harley

    I've lived in North Lake Tahoe for twenty-two years and have never seen a Great Horned Owl in the tree right off my back deck. I wouldn't have known it was there other than for the two crows causing lots of noise. They left for awhile and the owl stayed put, so beautiful and huge. They just returned, worked their way down the tree and still the owl did not move. Finally, when they got too close and moved in, all three swooped down and away, the crows chasing the owl, who was bigger and definitely bolder, particularly since it was alone. I am so thrilled to be able to see such things right from my living room while sitting in front of my roaring wood stove. Of course, I went out with binoculars, which didn't seem to bother either the owl or the crows. There was lots of noise very early this morning by the Steller's jay and I was wondering if a crow had tried to grab and egg and now, maybe I have my answer. I am so lucky to live in such a special place where I can see bears, coyotes, bats, and so much wildlife, I'm in awe daily.

  • 2019-06-04 17:49:04
    Ben

    TBH a lot of people are saying these crows are horrible, and the owl majestic, like the crows are evil, but crows don't forget, and owls hunt at night when we sleep. It's hard for me to imagine any else but the owls hunting the crows at night and in return retaliation during the day. Just because we see one side of the story, doesn't mean we know. Food for thought

    • 2023-08-06 21:51:08
      Love Nature

      Totally agree with you... love all of God's Creatures.. nature can be brutal. Crows are highly intelligent! I've read they can remember a face for 10 years! Amazing.. We need both in this world.

  • 2021-10-31 19:20:15
    Uzma

    The ancient Arabs have an expression
    كانه رجل الغربان و البوم as if their shouting was crows and owls.

  • 2021-12-16 20:42:43
    Diane Baca

    We were on our nightly walk and I heard a ruckus in the tree overhead. An owl had a large crow. The crow was still struggling but then was very still. The owl waited for us to pass me flew off with the large crow in its talons. So, the crows have reason to fear the owl.

  • 2022-01-18 18:43:56
    Tammy Renaud

    I have heard the owl. And I actually thought the crows were after the squirrels. Sure enough there he sat as many crows were yakking away flying around him. He didn't seem to care😊

  • 2022-03-13 09:32:06
    Pat Martinez

    Living in a neighborhood of Chicago, I never dreamed of seeing a Great Horned Owl around here. But, 10 years ago, in February, my husband excitedly called me to the front window to see the magnificent owl perched in the tree in front of our house. On one side of the tree there were many crows cawing at the owl until it majestically flew off, leaving us breathless. This morning, 10 years later, my husband again excitedly called me to the front window to see a Great Horned Owl in a tree across the street, with many crows angrily cawing. The sighting was brief as the owl promptly flew away, leaving us grateful to the universe for the chance to see it.

  • 2022-06-01 07:59:24
    Terri Tomicki

    The other evening, at dusk, my husband and I heard several crows cawing in our backwoods. We then saw several fly to another tree while a brown silhouette flew to another tree. We weren’t sure if it was an owl or hawk. This cawing and flying back and forth continued for a little while and then stopped. This morning my husband went outside and saw a Great Horned on the ground, near the trees from the other day, with his catch. We moved into our home in the fall of 2020 and this is our first sighting of an owl. We are in the midst of removing several invasive plants and planting natives. We look forward to seeing more nature in our backyard.

  • 2022-08-16 13:25:19
    Keith

    A number of years ago we lived in Kirkwood, MO. A great horned owl was nesting in a very big pine tree across the street with two young adolescents. We didn't often see the mother, but the young owls ended up on the ground in different yards and trees over a number of weeks. One day, three crows were making a big racket in the front yard, harassing one of the adolescent owls. They chased it from the front yard to our back yard and into a big oak tree where the adolescent settled. I'll never forget what happened next. When the crows swooped down and attacked the young owl, mother owl appeared from deep within the tree's branches. It rose above the crows, and they beat it the heck out of there. She was really big, a massive wing span. Once the crows were gone, she settled back into the tree.

    • 2023-01-08 17:46:18
      Jessica Deany

      So many cool stories! I saw this occur today in Fairview Tx (Dallas suburb) and as many others have, came across this when I googled. Thanks for the info!
      PS I think this site should offer Team Crow or Team Owl shirts 😂

  • 2022-12-11 16:56:45
    Robert F

    Mid November, walking dog, heard crows yaking at something. Looked up to see great horned owl in oak tree. I stood there long enough for crows to fly off. Made them nervous?
    A few days later I discovered dead owl laying on bed of fallen oak leaves near same tree.
    Most sad.

  • 2023-02-28 10:21:23
    Sharon

    Just this very morning, several, 3 or more Crows were making a huge ruckus over a mother Owl in a high pine tree, as she was watching over her young from several hundred yards away. Papa owl was holed up near the babies. What a noise but when it was over, the Crows finally left. The mother owl was fine.

  • 2023-04-01 16:02:59
    Gayle

    I live not far from Carleton college. Last Monday I looked out my window and saw two crows chasing a brown bird. The landed on the ground in the woods outside my window. The two were joined by two more. I soon realized that their target was a small owl, possibly a northern saw-whet or similar sized. The owl put up a valiant fight, but ultimately lost. A murder of crows has new meaning to me now.

  • 2023-05-14 18:40:54
    Kathy

    I live in southeast Wisconsin and have been hearing the owls in the grove of woods next to our home for years. I recently sited 1, then a 2nd and just yesterday a 3rd (much smaller, so I'm assuming a youngster). I think these are great horned owls, but can't get a close or clear enough view to be sure. Today the crows have been most insistent - cawing, flocking, chasing. Wonderous to watch!

  • 2023-05-17 08:57:42
    Jennifer

    I witnessed this May 16 2023 about 8:20 pm Puyallup, WA. Crows went crazy and suddenly two owls were speeding overhead with crows flying around them. This was a nesting pair of large owls in Manorwood subdivision.

  • 2023-12-10 15:41:12
    Jim

    Buchanan County, MO here. Heard loud racket in my wooded back yard just now, close to dusk. At least 12 large crows. Had no idea what was happening till I saw the huge Great Horned Owl calmly sitting on a branch in the middle of them. Crows were literally in a semicircle about 10-15 feet away, really giving him the business! In fact, they were even taking turns divebombing him ( though they kept a discrete distance. Went on for 10 min or so till I went out to take a video. Owl leisurely flew off, with a squadron of crows in wing formation tailing him to the next tree line.
    Had no idea crows and owls were a “thing,” but now I do, thanks to your website.

  • 2023-12-22 16:37:10
    D Buck

    Early on a summer morning a few years ago I heard crows in the woods outside my house making a barred owl call in unison. By the time I realized what they were doing and started looking for an owl, they had dispersed, probably chasing it away. I never saw an owl, but they must have been mocking and harassing one. Crows are scary smart birds.

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