Speaking of Nature: The bird, the bunny and the benevolent passerby

  • This little eastern cottontail would be far too young to stand any chance against an adult crow. Bill Danielson found this little one in a nest on the edge of his lawn. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson

  • The American crow is an extremely talented generalist predator that will eat just about anything that it can get a hold of. For the Recorder/Bill Danielson


For the Recorder
Monday, May 28, 2018

It was a normal day and I was driving home just as I have done thousands of times. Like any of you, the drive home is so familiar to me that I have every pothole memorized and every curve burned into my brain. I could almost do it blindfolded and I am only really challenged when the snow is so deep that the familiar landmarks are obscured.

So, on this normal day on this normal route, I found myself looking at something decidedly abnormal. On a straightaway that comes down a very gentle slope, I noticed that far ahead there was a crow in the road. On its own, this is nothing out of the ordinary, but this crow was definitely behaving in an unusual manner. What was strange was the way in which the crow was awkwardly flapping its wings. It definitely caught my attention and, as I rolled along, I fixed all of my attention on the bird.

Closer and closer I got, and then I saw something truly remarkable. A rabbit shot out from the side of the road and made a lunge at the crow. The bird, continuing in its awkward flapping, jumped back a bit, but did not leave. The rabbit made another lunge and the crow jumped again. What the heck was going on?

I’ve heard of strange pairings of animals making “friends,” but this would certainly be a pair of animals that would make strange friends indeed. I’ve also heard of ravens playing “tag” with wolves, but that was usually around an animal killed by the wolf and rather than being a leisure activity, it was most likely motivated by the raven’s desire to chase off the wolf so it could get some food. Intrigued, I continued driving forward. I didn’t really have any other choice.

Eventually, I got close enough to see that there was another animal in the road. It was very small and the crow was clearly trying to capture it. Suddenly I put all the pieces together and my keen interest in the situation was replaced with a mild sense of horror. The crow had found a baby rabbit, and somehow the mother rabbit was witness to the encounter and was doing her best to chase the crow away from her offspring.

By this time, I was getting close enough to begin hitting the brakes. I thought perhaps that the mere presence of the car would chase off the crow, but that was not the case. The bird had found itself a very valuable prey item and it was not going to give it up. I could see the little rabbit kicking and struggling to get away, and it became clear that I would hit the crow if I didn’t stop. When the car finally came to a standstill, I had lost sight of the crow below the horizon of the hood.

I put the car in park and got out. This is when the mother rabbit took a reluctant hop off the pavement, but she did not flee altogether. I rounded the front bumper and there was the crow. It had a firm grip on the little rabbit, but it simply couldn’t manage to get airborne with its prize. The youngster was putting up too much of a struggle to make flight possible and it quickly became clear that the little guy wasn’t quite little enough.

The crow’s motive was extremely clear: kill the rabbit so it stopped struggling and then see if it could actually be lifted into the air. I immediately acted on a motive of my own: stop the crow. I realize that his may not be the most professional thing to do, but I have a soft spot in my heart for baby rabbits and if, as I lumbered along in my slow human way, there was time and opportunity to save the little thing, then save it I would.

At some point, I stepped close enough to chase off the crow. Then, all I had to do was capture the rabbit myself. This is far easier said than done because I was trying to grab the rabbit without killing it. However, the rabbit was clearly beat up and woozy, which gave me a chance. Using all of the soccer skills in my possession, I was finally able to corral the little guy sufficiently to get a hold of it.

I knew the rabbit was probably OK when it made a loud scream. This was surprising and unnerving, and it was enough to get the mother rabbit thinking about making a lunge at me. As I held the rabbit in my hand, with its belly on my palm and my fingers around its middle, I felt around for broken ribs. Finding no obvious sign of injury, I decided to simply place the baby rabbit in a thicket by the side of the pavement. The mother was right there and I thought this was better than separating them. When I left, there was no sign of the crow.

At this time of year, there are dramas like this unfolding on a daily basis. Birds find something to eat, and they are chased and harassed by the parents of whatever they have found. Crows are chased by blackbirds, and blackbirds are chased by smaller birds. Crows are among the larger predators and they are particularly good at combing freshly-mowed lawns for whatever might be found.

They can sit up in a tree and watch, or they will get down on the ground and explore all the nooks and crannies in a search for food. Unlike us, they really have nothing else to do. They spend all of their time observing nature and they are really good at it. The only reason this particular crow was unsuccessful is because the rabbit it found was just a little too large to handle before it was so rudely interrupted. On the grand scale of things, my intervention means nothing, but it made me feel good as I got back into my car and continued my journey home.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Massachusetts State Parks, and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.