I stood watching in utter astonishment. Flying beside me as I was about to get into my van was a crow, wings flapping wildly just a metre above the ground. But it wasn’t the crow that really caught my attention. It was what the bird was carrying in its beak. At first I wasn’t sure, as it looked simply like a ball of light-brown fur. I thought it could have been something the crow picked up from a garbage bin or maybe it was a scrape from a small animal run over by a car — roadkill of some sort that I couldn’t initially identify.
And then I saw tiny legs kicking out frantically, trying to break free from the clamp on its body created by the bird’s black beak. At that moment, I realized the crow had latched onto a bunny, which was no bigger than the palm of my hand. It was obviously fighting for its life, using every natural instinct at its disposal to pry itself from the crow’s clutches. Besides kicking its back legs at the black bird, the bunny twisted and squirmed its body in every imaginable direction. The bird’s hold on the gyrating bunny seemed precarious, but it was successfully holding onto to its prey.
My eyes were suddenly diverted to a scene transpiring behind me. From the edge of a building two adult rabbits erupted, charging in the direction the crow was flying. I don’t know for certain, but I thought I heard some cries from both the youngster and its parents — some form of communication. Perhaps, the bunny was yelling out for help, while mother and father (or doe and buck in rabbit parlance) were assuring their offspring that they were coming to its rescue.
Whatever the cries might have meant, I found myself cheering inwardly for the bunny and its parents, which seemed so outmatched by the crow — a massive bird that was far larger than its pursuers and prey. I recalled impressions linked to my youth. The black-winged creature was Diablo, the evil companion of the Wicked Queen, in the Disney animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, while the tiny bunny was Thumper from Disney’s Bambi. No wonder I was mentally urging on the three rabbits and booing the crow.
The parent rabbits never caught up to the crow. As it turned out they didn’t have to, when the bunny broke free from the deadly vise. When it fell to the earth, the bunny appeared to be dazed, but it soon recovered and scampered off in the direction from whence its parents came. Meanwhile, its parents stood their ground, jumping upward on springy hind legs in an attempt to discourage the predator from resuming its pursuit. But the thwarted bird, screaming its frustration, cawed repeatedly and flew off in the opposition direction. My presence may have further deterred its returning to attack the bunny, but I don’t really think that was the case, as I was frozen in place — too startled by what was happening to make any movement whatsoever.
How long did it take for this amazing struggle to transpire? Mere seconds. although it seemed to last minutes. I could have counted off one thousand and one, one thousand and two, one thousand and three, maybe as far as one thousand and four in my mind and then it was over.
Where did the battle between prey and predator take place? In an asphalt parking lot outside the complex where I live. It was nature in the raw inside the confines of a city!
I happen to live alongside Sturgeon Creek, where wildlife has a firm foothold in an urban environment. I have watched with fascination adult beavers and their kits swimming in the creek. On other occasions, I have seen geese with their goslings effortlessly gliding across the water. There are ducks aplenty and foxes patrol the fringes of the creek. As well, I have had the pleasure of periodic glimpses of deer in the high reeds surrounding the waterway.
Just below Grant’s Mill, pickerel (walleye) and jackfish (northern pike) are easily viewed each spring swimming in the faster flowing, clear water. Crayfish cling to rocks near the water’s edge, and frogs are an abundant visitor to the shoreline of the creek.
But rabbits are the most numerous and I had become so accustomed to them that they had lost their fascination. That is until that recent Wednesday morning, when I saw the tiny ball of fur fighting for its life, as well as the parental instinct of the adult rabbits that drove them to chase a crow that seemed to be at least four times their combined size.
Winnipeg happens to have become a haven for crows. In years past, crows were confined to northern portions of the province, but the clever birds eventually discovered food was plentiful in an urban environment. For urbanized crows, fast-food dumpster diving has become a way of life. And the phenomenon is not limited to Winnipeg, cities across North America are reporting that more and more of the birds are arriving to partake of their community’s smorgasbord of goodies. Zoologist John Marzluff of the University of Washington called the phenomenon an “urban invasion” (Free Press, December 14, 2008).
Marzluff said discarded human food and garbage is fueling the crow population growth. He reported that “downtown” crows are more aggressive, live longer and have more offspring than their rural relatives.
In the article American Crows Nesting in Winnipeg (Nature Manitoba News, January/February 2011), author Tom Reaume identified a number of nesting sites in the city in 2008 and 2009, which is another new phenomenon. Some of the locations of the nests were rather unusual: on a spruce tree at the edge of the concrete sculptural garden on the fourth storey of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, an American elm tree near the Centennial Library, and in a Siberian elm along St. Mary Avenue.
Crows have even been noted for attacking passers-by. In 2010, crows began attacking terrified residents of Ebby Avenue. At the time, a CTV report said Manitoba Wildlife officials claimed they got frequent calls about “vicious” crows plaguing a neighbourhood, and that the birds were merely protecting their young in nests.
Unfortunately for residents attacked by the birds, a la the Alfred Hitchcock film, they had visions of a “murder of crows,” which is the correct plural form to describe more than one of the extremely adaptable birds.
Fortunately, I didn’t witness a “murder,” and the rabbit, which I dubbed “Fluffy the Lucky,” scampered off to safety.