November 22, 2014

Dark deeds

A chill, mizzly November morning, the sky dull and grey, wet yellow leaves on the pavements. We were walking to the common with Scout when suddenly the street was full of mayhem: six or seven crows in an aerial dogfight, wheeling and screaming about our heads.

Courtesy Pandoozy Photos
We stopped to try and work out what was going on. One, with several missing primaries on both wings through which the dull sky showed as it flew, seemed to be the victim, the others pursuing it, diving at it mid-air with wings and claws. It tried to shelter on a windowsill but the other crows came at it again and again, cawing and shrieking relentlessly. It was brutal and hard to watch, it wasn't courtship or play-fighting. There was no play about it.

It's unusual to see crows congregating in such numbers; while they're very common, they're mostly solitary birds – unlike rooks or jackdaws, which form flocks. These had clearly come together for a common purpose, and it was chilling to see the efficiency with which they drove away the damaged bird. When it was over they melted away, and the street's Saturday morning silence seemed odd, like the returning hush after a firework display.

Birds of many species will expel or even kill individuals that are weak or diseased; it may be that doing so protects the health of the flock, or prevents it attracting the attention of predators. The target bird in this instance was missing feathers, which I might have put down to the moult had it not been so late in the year. Perhaps it was old, or in poor condition; perhaps the others couldn't risk having it around. Driving it away took energy; it was no passing skirmish but a prolonged attack. I'm sure they had their reasons, but it still felt chastening. We walked on to the common in silence.