Blackbirds Mobbing Hawks On The Nest

Last week I photographed Brewer’s Blackbirds as they relentlessly mobbed a family of Red-tailed Hawks on a nest in Montana.


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The attacks were persistent and intense. At times the blackbirds seemed to line up in the air to get at the female hawk and her three chicks (her mate was seldom on the nest).



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The blackbirds ignored the chicks when no adult was present but they were instantly on either parent when they returned to the nest. In this shot the female had just landed with a twig in her beak but the blackbirds had followed her in and one of them…



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struck her on the rump.



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As that bird left the scene its companion came in and actually…



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landed on her. It stayed there long enough for me to get 6 shots before it left but I like this one because it reminds me of a Plains Indian warrior counting coup on an enemy.



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When one of the adults returned to the nest, blackbirds would invariably follow it in. Here the female is bringing in a vole.



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Incredibly one of the blackbirds actually rode on her back as she landed (I didn’t have enough shutter speed to get the little bird sharp). In the next shot in the burst the blackbird is apparently still there but it can’t be seen because the wings of the hawk are up.



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In this last series of four shots the female hawk is delicately tearing up a vole and feeding it to the chicks but this opportunistic blackbird senses a chance for intimidation.



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It landed on her back which made the female hawk…



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look up for an instant but when she resumed feeding the chicks…



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the blackbird added insult to injury by audaciously walking further up her back.

Larger raptors are simply not fast enough to catch small birds (in most cases) and these blackbirds instinctively know that and take advantage of the situation. Brewer’s Blackbirds are communal nesters and I suspect they were nesting in the area, saw the adult hawks as threats, and acted accordingly.

Normally when I see natural behaviors like this between native species I’m just an unbiased observer but I must admit that after watching the blackbirds torment the hawks at their nest for so long I eventually found myself hoping that one of the hawks would reach up, grab a blackbird out of the air and in a flurry of flying feathers crank its little head off.




29 comments to Blackbirds Mobbing Hawks On The Nest

  • What an amazing series, Ron. I knew they harassed them but I didn’t know they would have the chutzpah to land on them!

  • I’m with you … by the time I got to the end, I wanted to reach in and swat the little blackbird off her back. I see a lot of the blackbirds mobbing a hawk in flight … only once have I seen the hawk turn with it’s talons extended … it wasn’t able to catch the blackbird, but it gave it pause and it backed off for the time being. I am sure it returned soon enough. Great shots and an amazing story told here.

    Andrea @ From The Sol

  • Phyllis

    Your usual excellent work. However, there’s an “oops”. You referred to them as “corvids” which they are not. They are Icterids. Ah, well. 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right, Phyllis. And I knew that. My (poor) excuse is that I was in a hurry to go shooting this morning and didn’t notice the error. I’ll correct it in the text and I appreciate the heads up!

  • Jean

    Wow, great shots Ron. Very interesting. My Hubby and I witnessed a Raven steal a Red Tail’s Rabbit one day. The Hawk was furious, turned around, let out a shriek, and took out after the Raven. We never saw a Raven fly so fast. It was humorous. I was expecting to see the Mama Hawk peck back at the Blackbird. I’m glad the chicks are ok though.

    • That must have been something to see, Jean. It wouldn’t be easy for a raven to steal prey (especially as large as a rabbit) from a red-tail.

  • Patty Chadwick

    When I look at the first shot again, all I can think of is “Bad Bird Ballet”… I think the Brewer’s dark silouttes add to the sense of villainy, menace and threat….they are truly audacious!!! Glad, and surprised, relieved they didn’t go after the chicks….

    • “all I can think of is “Bad Bird Ballet”

      Patty, I actually considered working “Bad Boy Brewer’s Blackbirds” into the title of my post but in the end figured it might seem a little contrived.

      It was very interesting that once the adults left the nest the blackbirds didn’t go anywhere near it. Ever! They didn’t have the slightest interest in the chicks.

  • Gob and smacked.
    Flabber and ghasted.
    I was initially worried for the chicks – and then found myself wishing that the poor hawk had some blackbird repellent. Or less patience.
    Thanks Ron.

    • “wishing that the poor hawk had some blackbird repellent. Or less patience.”

      I’d hope for the latter, EC. Something in me kept hoping that at least one of those little tormentors got its just rewards!

  • Jorge H. Oliveira

    Great shots. The first one is my favourite.
    Your setting experiments worked out beautifully (by the way I never thought you were loosing your mind only a bit thrilled by the action you were witnessing).
    Thank you for sharing this very unusual behavior.

    • “by the way I never thought you were loosing your mind only a bit thrilled by the action you were witnessing”

      Maybe a little of both, Jorge :). Thank you.

  • Susan Stone

    This is an amazing series. So glad you got to observe this behavior. We have video of an American Kestrel going after an annoying Great-tailed Gackle (which was nesting in the next tree), when it tried to land in the Kestrel’s nest tree. Loved watching the feathers fly, but unfortunately it did not do in the Grackle.

  • Ellen Wascou

    In my area of the east coast, when a hawk comes in to capture of small bird or other creature, all the birds in the immediate area go after the hawk. I’ve never seen one land on a hawk like in these amazing photos.

  • Dan Sedenquist

    Wonderful images and commentary. Thanks. “Crank its little head off”, indeed.

  • Dick Harlow

    I agree with Charlotte, great behavioral shots, very interesting!!

    It seems to me by looking at these shots the female isn’t phased, just dealing with the normal horang of blackbirds. She is focused on her young and not going to be distracted, especially since the blackbirds don’t seem to bother the young. They are probably used to this commotion, and who knows the feet on her back might even feel good. However if the blackbirds were pecking her back with their beaks, that could be a different reaction.

    Many thanks for this series!

    • Dick, You’re mostly right – the female seldom reacted to the torment so I’d say she took it mostly in stride. The only thing I saw her do was raise the “hackles” on the top and back of her head in apparent frustration or anger a few times.

  • Patty Chadwick

    I’ve never seen anything like this!!! I can’t believe the courage of these so much smaller birds! There must be some kind of hormonal reaction that drives them to such “insanity”, to such extreme action..the shots of the tormentors actually RIDING one of the hawks blows my mind!!! “Mobbing” is the perfect name for this behavior…reminds me of mosquitoes in Alaska. I can understand the blackbirds defensineness, but the poor hawks…..

    • “I can understand the blackbirds defensineness, but the poor hawks…..”

      That’s how I felt too, Patty. The female red-tail in particular seemed to have endless patience.

  • I love your photographs and your comments. I laughed out loud when you said you wished the hawk would crank off the head of one of the pesky birds.

    • Terrie, I was surprised by how annoyed I became at those blackbirds after watching their antics for a while. They actually seemed to be enjoying tormenting the hawks. If they’d started picking on the chicks I’m not sure how I might have handled it…

  • charlotte Norton

    Absolutely amazing behavioral shots! I have from time to time seen small birds harassing larger ones but had no idea. I did see a whole flock of sparrows chasing a hawk the other day. Thanks so much for sharing!