Crows vs. Hawks: An Ancient Conflict Between Bird Species

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A hawk is an intimidating threat to many animals, including lots of birds. They are powerful, fast, and have strong, sharp talons and beaks that can quickly tear apart their prey.

Crows are not exactly the timid black birds we think they are.

It’s not uncommon to spot a crow attacking a hawk, and anyone who observes this is likely left thinking, “Why would you do that, crow? It seems like you’re no match for a powerful hawk!”

Why does this happen, and what is the typical outcome in a crow vs. hawk encounter?

Why Crows Attack Hawks

The main reason crows attack hawks is that hawks are seen as a threat, and these intelligent birds are quick to defend their territory, nests, and nestlings.

Nestlings are young, immature crows that still live in the nest where they were born. Unlike smaller birds that only stay in the nest for a couple of weeks, baby crows remain in the nest for about 30 days. This makes them pretty desirable prey for hawks, who are known to eat smaller birds, especially helpless crow babies.

Crows have to take this threat seriously! A crow wouldn’t want to attack a hawk without a good reason, but if one of these powerful birds is interested in a nest of crow chicks, the adults will take action.

Nesting Behavior of Crows

Crows hide their nests in evergreen trees when they can, although they will nest in deciduous trees when needed.

The nest is usually close to the tree’s trunk rather than out on a branch. It can be found in the crook of the tree, in the space where the limb meets the trunk. You usually won’t see a nest low to the ground because crows prefer to build their nests in the top two-thirds of the tree.

While spotting a nest is difficult from where we stand on the ground, hawks have a better vantage point. When they see a nest with their excellent eyesight, they will perch far away and watch until the nest is unprotected. That’s when they go on the attack!

The Logistics of a Crow vs. Hawk Encounter

Let’s look at the size differences between the average crow and the average hawk.

Hawks vary in size, depending on the species. The average Ferruginous hawk is 23 inches long, has a 55-inch wingspan, and weighs between 32 and 80 ounces, making it the largest hawk species in North America.

The smallest hawk, on the other hand, is the Sharp-shinned hawk. A male Sharp-shinned hawk will be between 9.1 and 11.8 inches long, with a wingspan of 17 to 23 inches, and weigh between 2.9 and 4.1 ounces. Females are slightly larger.

The American crow is about 17.5 inches long, whereas the fish crow is larger, at 19 inches. Crows weigh between 12 and 57 ounces.

Even though there are larger crow species and smaller hawk species, most crows are significantly smaller than most birds of prey. That’s part of why they use the mobbing technique when they attack.

What is Mobbing?

Although a crow will sometimes go on the attack by itself, it’s much more likely that you will observe what is called “mobbing.”

A mobbing attack is exactly what it sounds like: an attack by a group of birds rather than one individual. Using teamwork, mobbing birds will overwhelm and scare off a large attacking bird like a hawk.

Crows don’t only attack hawks through mobbing behavior. They will attack any larger bird this way and have been known to mob eagles, ravens, and owls.

Can Mobbing Crows Kill a Hawk?

Often, a crow mob will only attack a hawk until it retreats enough to be no longer considered a threat.

In some circumstances, however, the crows will attack until the threatening hawk or eagle is dead. A single crow can’t easily kill a much larger raptor or bird of prey, but through teamwork, crows have harassed and killed hawks.

Understanding Where the Phrase “Murder of Crows” Comes From

A group of crows, you may have heard, is called a “murder.” Have you wondered why?

It’s a poetic turn of phrase, likely derived from folklore and superstition.

Because crows are scavengers, they have always been associated with death and the macabre. Think of how often they are included among Halloween decorations during the “spooky season” and how they often accompany illustrations of creepy old cemeteries.

Historically, people have viewed crows as a symbol of death. In ancient times, they were known to circle battlefields to pick at the dead, and some believe that circling crows signify imminent death.

There is also an old folktale that says that crows gather in groups to determine the fate of one of their own who has committed a capital offense.

Is a Group of Crows Called a Murder Because They Murder Hawks?

Even though a group of crows might be able to kill a hawk, there is no evidence to suggest that the phrase “murder of crows” comes from their ability to join together and kill a hawk that is a threat to their fledglings.

Additionally, crows do not typically attack hawks intending to kill them. The goal is to frighten the hawk away from the crow chicks or distract the hawk from seeing the nest in the first place.

Are Hawks Afraid of Crows?

Hawks are not afraid of much at all!

Hawks are apex predators, which means they are at the top of their food chain. Even though no animals or birds hunt hawks, these fierce birds can still be killed in a conflict.

Crows vs Hawks

When a hawk spies a crow’s nest, it will wait until the nest is unattended to attack. The baby birds offer no threat to the hawk; neither does a single crow.

While we can’t say what a hawk feels while under attack from a mob of crows, we do know that it will typically do its best to get out of the situation quickly.

When Do Hawks Attack Adult Crows?

Hawk-crow encounters aren’t limited to situations where a group of crows is mobbing the hawk.

A hawk will attack an adult crow when it is hungry or if it perceives the individual crow to be a threat. Most hawks will eat other birds, but their preferred diet comprises smaller prey.

Red-Tailed hawks are the most plentiful hawk species in North America, and their diet is made up primarily of:

  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Squirrels
  • Chipmunks
  • Snakes

Other hawk species will eat:

  • Grouse
  • Snowshoe hares
  • Songbirds
  • Frogs and toads
  • Small corvids
  • Woodpeckers
  • Lizards
  • Crabs
  • Large insects
  • Gophers
  • Prairie dogs
  • Lemmings
  • Voles

Obviously, not all of these dietary options are available to all hawks. You’ll notice that hawks have adapted to their environment. They will eat what is available based on where they live.

Hawk vs. Crow Videos

YouTube is full of fascinating videos of birds and other animals attacking one another. They can be disturbing, so please be careful with my recommendations for the following videos.

Watching these videos can help you learn to recognize and understand the behaviors of both hawks and crows.

This video shows an up-close fight between a hawk and a crow alongside a busy rural highway. Near the end, the hawk notices the person filming and flies away, only narrowly avoiding being hit by a car. The crow gets away, too. This is a good video to watch if you want to see what a one-on-one conflict looks like, but without the crow losing the fight at the end.

This next video is a bit more intense. I found it much harder to watch because of the fight’s outcome: the crow dies. This video does a great job of showing why a crow would avoid attacking a hawk on its own. The hawk is very strong and overpowers the intelligent but weaker crow.

Finally, here’s a video that shows a small army of crows working together to “mob” a hawk that must have been too close to a nest. Watch how the brave crows bully the hawk down the roof of the building where they are all perched. When the hawk eventually flies away, the crows follow to chase it even further away!

So, Who Wins in a Crow vs. Hawk Battle?

Hawks are strong and powerful. Crows are intelligent and collaborative.

In a one-on-one conflict, a hawk definitely has the advantage over a crow. But when a hawk gets too close to crow nestlings, the adults can work together to intimidate and scare off the hawk.

Bird behavior is fascinating, isn’t it?

Next time you see hawks and crows in the same area, keep an eye open for this kind of animal kingdom conflict! You never know when crows will need to defend their nest from these larger and more powerful predators.

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Liz Ranfeld

Liz Boltz Ranfeld is an independent educator and writer from Indiana. She lives on the edge of the woods with her husband, 2 kids, dogs, chickens, and hedgehog. One of the best things of living in rural Indiana is spotting hawks, pileated woodpeckers, hummingbirds, and other wild creatures. She enjoys hiking, canoeing, and gardening, and one of her personal heroes is the conservationist and birdwatcher Rosalie Barrow Edge, who paved the way for the protection of birds around the globe.