Birders are familiar with the sight of a perched Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a flock of crows. If the owl sits tight, the crows eventually tire of screaming invective and, one at a time, drift off to find mischief elsewhere. However, if for some reason the owl flies – for example, if a curious birdwatcher stumbles onto the scene trying to find out what all the fuss is about and gets too close for the owl’s comfort – the crows immediately renew their attack with full-throated vehemence. Once the owl lands, if it sits placidly again, the crows gradually move off. That’s my dry, factual description of the commonly encountered event.
I found a much more interesting rendition of it in one of the old books from Witmer Stone’s personal library. Perley Milton (“P.M.”) Silloway, in his 1897 book Sketches of Some Common Birds, described the crows mobbing a hapless owl, then wrote, “At length, having exhausted the corvine vocabulary of epithets and scurrility, and being tired of deriding that which, like Diogenes, would not be derided, one by one the crows would abandon the siege and seek less stoical victims, or less monotonous amusement.” You can look through all the latest bird-related books, listservs, and social media posts you want, and you’ll never come across a sentence containing the likes of “corvine vocabulary of epithets,” or “scurrility,” or a reference to a Greek philosopher who was an influence on the early Stoics.