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Ravens versus redtail: more sound than fury

Land of Four Seasons

The sight of Common Ravens harassing and chasing a Red-tailed Hawk, or songbirds in turn pestering a raptor or a raven is a common seen in the Tehachapi area, and I'm often asked about the dynamics of these seemingly mismatched conflicts. People wonder: why do the bigger or more formidable birds fly away from the smaller birds that are harassing them?

The first thing to understand is that mature ravens pair-bond for life, and they maintain a territory year-round. When you see a group of smaller ravens raiding a dumpster or foraging in a field, they are usually unmated juveniles and the size of the group may fluctuate over the course of the day as individual birds come and go.

Adult ravens, on the other hand, form a pair and stay together day in and day out, season after season. These large mature ravens nest and raise a brood together, and work with each other as partners to protect their young, find food and defend their territory.

When a Red-tailed Hawk or other bird of prey enters their territory, the raven pair will do their best to chase it away by squawking, dive-bombing and generally harassing the raptor until it leaves.

The ravens pose no real threat to the hawk, but their noisy interference draws attention to the predator and reduces its chance of hunting success, so the hawk will generally move on to a quieter location to hunt or rest. There is no point in the hawk remaining when potential prey has been alerted to its presence.

Ravens will do this whether they are nesting or not, for they are not simply protecting their young, they are also maintaining the boundaries of their territory and keeping out a potential competitor.

Songbirds will do the same thing to a hawk, and more frequently to ravens themselves. Ravens will prey upon nestlings so the smaller songbirds, like mockingbirds and blackbirds, for example, will pester an intruding raven as a way of safeguarding their young, but even in the offseason they will chase ravens out of the neighborhood.

Like the ravens who pester hawks, the songbirds can't actually harm the larger birds, but their loud protests and aerial harassment convince the ravens to keep moving to a more peaceful or protected location.

On rare occasions, annoying a larger predator can be risky – Clark and

Jean Moore were once in the Piute Mountains above Bodfish when they saw ravens swooping and heckling a flying Golden Eagle, who finally rolled on its back, seized an incautious raven in its talons and landed and ate it. Typically, though, a bigger bird will simply keep flying until its pursuers lose interest.

I took the accompanying photos while walking out back at our place on Cherry Lane. Our resident pair of ravens keeps a close eye on their territory and unless they are otherwise occupied, they will quickly fly over and start annoying any hawk that ventures close.

The ravens are more acrobatic flyers and have the advantage in close quarters, while redtails are superior at soaring and are generally left alone when flying higher. The Red-tailed Hawk in the photos withstood the harassment for a few minutes, then flew off to hunt rodents in a less-contested location.

The raven pair flew after it for a few hundred yards, then wheeled in the air and returned to their territory triumphantly, while I walked back down to the house with some photos of a little nature drama in the neighborhood.

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].