Jeffrey Boone Miller
During my thirty years in densely populated Cambridge and Belmont, Massachusetts, I've seldom had to look too long or too far to find a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). Twice, I have even seen one pluck a shrew out of my backyard. By contrast, it was only four years ago, in April 2015 at Fresh Pond in Cambridge, that I first saw a Common Raven (Corvus corax) near my home. I've since added a small handful of neighborhood raven sightings, including a memorable moment when I saw one poking about in my front yard.
Because ravens have been so rare in my area, I was excited when I heard a raven croaking as I was walking on the south shore of Fresh Pond on January 10, 2019, at 3:30 pm. It was a partly cloudy day with temperatures in the mid-30s and a gusty northwest wind. After a few moments, I located the calling raven wheeling in the wind about 100 feet in the air. Shortly afterward, I heard and soon saw a second raven—the first time I'd seen two together in the neighborhood. Alternately gliding and flapping, the two ravens whirled about on the wind often almost in contact with each other, seemingly having a companionable meeting. My hopes were raised that these ravens might be a pair scouting for a nest site.
After I had watched the acrobatics of the two ravens for a minute or so, my attention was attracted by another large bird high up in the northeast sky. I was astonished as this bird, which turned out to be a Red-tailed Hawk, half-folded its wings into a falcon-like dive and headed toward the ravens. As the hawk neared one of the ravens, it opened its wings, extended its talons, and struck at the raven. The attacked raven avoided injury by rolling and veering away at seemingly the last possible second.
That first attack had been dramatic enough, but I was further astonished when a second Red-tail appeared from the south and carried out another attack on the ravens. This second hawk started its attack from below, but also extended its talons as it neared its target. Again, the ravens escaped.
At this point, the ravens regrouped, switched into attack mode, and started to harass and dive at the two hawks. A few other walkers stopped, and we stood entranced as these four large birds battled across the windy sky. The hawks and ravens carried out three or four cycles of noisy attacks and counterattacks, each bird alternating between attacking and being attacked. Both the ravens and the Red-tails were sometimes upside down while fighting. The battle didn't last long. After a minute or two of hostilities, the ravens flew off to the north and the Red-tails flew off to the south, leaving behind an empty sky. None of the birds appeared to have been harmed, and it was not clear if either pair had "won" the encounter.
Red-tailed Hawks and Common Ravens do not have cordial relations. For example, ravens have been found to eat Red-tail chicks (Wiley 1973), and remains of Common Ravens have been found in Red-tail nests (Gatto et al. 2006). A video of two ravens repeatedly attacking a Red-tail is available online (Zinkova 2017). Though it is no surprise that ravens and Red-tails can be hostile to each other, there were nonetheless two aspects of the encounter I witnessed that intrigued me.
First, the Red-tails appeared to have coordinated their attacks on the ravens. Though not a notably cooperative species, pairs of Red-tails do work together to defend nests and have been noted to sometimes hunt gray squirrels together (Preston and Beane 2009). Second, the ravens fought back against the Red-tails. Raven pairs stay together all year, defend nests together, and are known to attack large hawks (Boarman and Heinrich 1999). Having equal numbers of birds on each side may have allowed both species to respond with hostilities, instead of fleeing a numerically dominant foe. Ravens and Red-tails begin nesting activities as early as January and February throughout Massachusetts (Flanagan 1993, Stymeist 2011), so perhaps the raven and Red-tail pairs I saw were scouting potential nesting sites and switched into defense mode.
Ravens continue to expand their range throughout Massachusetts (Flanagan 1993; Kamm et al. 2013) and have been reported to nest at sites in Watertown, Waltham, and Wellesley that are within one to ten flight miles of my house. Thus, I suspect that ravens and Red-tails will, on occasion, continue to meet in my neighborhood. If so, those meetings may also produce avian fireworks and any fortunate future observers will be in for a thrill.
- Boarman, W. I. and B. Heinrich. 1999. Common Raven (Corvus corax), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Ithaca, New York: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Gatto, A. E., T. G. Grubb, and C. L. Chambers. 2006. Red-tailed Hawk dietary overlap with Northern Goshawks on the Kaibab Plateau, Arizona, Journal of Raptor Research 39: 439–444.
- Flanagan, T. J. 1993. Recolonization of the Common Raven in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, Bird Observer 21: 197–204.
- Kamm, M., J. Walsh, J. Galluzzo, and W. Petersen. 2013. The Massachusetts Breeding Bird Atlas 2. (J. Walsh and W. Petersen, Eds.). New York: Scott & Nix, Inc.
- Preston, C. R. and R. D. Beane. 2009. Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (A. F. Poole, Editor). Ithaca, New York: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
- Stymeist, B. 2011. The Red-tailed Hawk. In Birds and Birding at Mount Auburn. Available online at: https://mountauburn.org/the-red-tailed-hawk/ (Accessed October 4, 2019).
- Wiley, J. W. 1975. The nesting and reproductive success of Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks in Orange County, California, 1973, The Condor 77: 133–139.
- Zinkova, M. 2017. Mid-air attack: Ravens vs. Red-Tailed Hawk May 31, 2017. Available online at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8ZOUNPtti4 (Accessed October 4, 2019).