In every habitat in every country there’s always a particular species you can count on to give away interesting and cryptic critters. When I was conducting research in the eucalyptus forests of eastern Australia it was bell birds, a small green bird with a distinctive bell like call that echos through the forest at a numbing consistency all day long. While their conspicuous and raucous nature made them tempting to ignore, these birds were often the first on the scene when interesting new species entered the forest, and by learning their alarm calls I discovered far more birds, especially predatory birds, than I would have on my own. A favorite moment was being the only field tech on my crew to glimpse a wompoo fruit dove, a particularly beautiful and secretive dove native to this area. Given its beauty spotting this bird was high on all our lists, but it wasn’t until the end of the field season when my attention was caught by some rather rowdy bell birds that I actually got to see one. Had I grown completely accustomed to ignoring the ringing calls of the Bell Birds, I might have missed what was one of the birding highlights of my time in Australia.
Here in the states, crows are often our bell bird equivalent. While crows get a bad wrap from birders for depredating and depleting backyard bird populations this is unfounded. In fact, I think crows make an excellent companion for a birder if you know what to look for. Cryptic hawks or owls that you would never know are sitting quietly in the trees above you are given away by the loud aggressive alarm calls of crows.
While nest searching in Mercer Island’s Island Crest Park this morning I couldn’t help but be drawn to the scolds of about a dozen crows across a ridge in the ravine of the park. The quick staccato and harsh tone of the call is easy to recognize with some practice, especially when it’s being given by several birds at once.
Peering across the ridge I couldn’t make out much through the branches, but sure enough after a few minutes of waiting came the unmistakeable “who cooks for you” call of a barred owl. Another one quickly responded sending the crows into a fervor, and after a couple more dive bombs the owl emerged from its mossy post and opted for a quieter resting place away from the crows. My feelings about the detriment of Barred Owls aside, there’s something unmistakeably thrilling about seeing an owl for a birder, and probably for most people. They’re cryptic and undeniably charismatic, a good combo for making an exciting bird and, as has been the case for many birds before it, I wouldn’t have spotted this one without a little help from the crows.