Crows vs Owls: What is going on?

27 February 2017

Great Horned OwlCats 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, the 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

     

  • 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

  • 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 didnt 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.

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