Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Let’s Do Lunch

The other day I drove by one of my favorite birding spots, a lovely area surrounded by farm fields, a river and a connected backwater, mixed-growth woods, athletic fields, and country roads. The variety of habitat makes it likely that I will see something interesting each time I pass by. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a close look at a wondrously beautiful common bird, such as the Hooded Mergansers that stopped at the backwater last spring. Sometimes it’s an exciting chance to see a rarer bird up close, such as the half-dozen blue-morph Snow Geese that were in with a flock of Canada Geese in the fields last fall.

I enjoy seeing rare and beautiful birds, of course, but what really interests me is watching the behavior of familiar birds as they go about with their most interesting lives. And when I can watch any raptors (hawks, eagles, falcons, etc.) up close, I am thrilled.

Last week, as I drove past the athletic fields, I spotted a large, juvenile Cooper's Hawk perched on a chain link fence less than a foot away from an American Crow. When I got my binoculars on the birds, I could see a second Cooper’s Hawk on the fence just beyond, and two more crows sauntering around on the grass below. (Without question, crows saunter. Grackles, on the other hand, swagger.) (Ever notice how crows tend to go about in threes?)

The two hawks, probably first-year siblings, were intent on snagging one of these crows for lunch. They swooped, stooped, dived, blocked, and bumped. The crows ignored them. One of the hawks finally grabbed the crow on the fence, seizing it by the leg and dragging it to the ground. The crow detached himself from the hawk, settled his feathers, and sauntered over to his buddies on the lawn. After one or two more passes, the hawks gave up and flew off together.

Though these were good-sized hawks, about the same length (15-21 inches) from crown to tail as the crows, they lacked the bulk and confidence of the larger crows. The crows, knowing that these inexperienced hawks did not pose a threat, remaining bemusedly unconcerned, reminded me of high school seniors ignoring the annoying antics of freshmen boys.

Cooper’s Hawks do prey primarily on birds, but they usually target smaller species. Around my bird feeders, they have good luck with Blue Jays and Mourning Doves. A few years ago, an adult Cooper’s Hawk visited my yard frequently and, over the course of a week, obligingly dispatched six European Starlings that had been hogging the suet feeder. (Starlings are a non-native species that has done great harm to native birds, and I was glad the Cooper’s ate every single one of them.)

A few years ago right outside our kitchen window, a young Sharp-Shinned Hawk (smaller cousin of the Cooper's) went through much the same exercise with a Blue Jay. Both birds are about the same size. The hawk managed to get one talon locked around the Blue Jay's leg; the jay hung upside down, squawking and screaming. Finally it had the wherewithal to reach up and peck repeatedly at the hawk's leg, forcing the raptor to release it, and off it flew. Both birds were rather ruffled.

Like life, enjoying birding is as much about serendipity as it is about intent and design. Sometimes, you find the good stuff just by taking time to stop and look.

1 comment:

  1. I'm fortunate enough to live in an area where raptors of various kinds are a relatively common sight.

    I suppose my favourite local birds, at any rate so far as impressiveness is concerned, are our buzzards. We have three pairs based in the vicinity of the village, and more, of course, in the surrounding hills. To watch them soaring and swooping in the thermals is a sight which I never cease to enjoy.

    As I occasionally mention inmy own blog, I have the mixed blessing of a small colony of jackdaws based in one of my chimmneys, beneath which I never have occasion to light a fire.

    They are very much the "gangsters" of my local bird population. Swaggering cold-eyed and sinister. And indeed, killers. This year they have twice killed broods of house sparrows in my nest boxes. I suppose for territorial reasons. And house sparrows are a species in steep decline over here.

    And yet.... I cannot bring myself to do, as some have suggested, and drive off, smoke out, or othewise dispose of my jackdaws. Partly for the "historical" reason that there have been jackdaws in the vicinity of Cross Foxes for as long as anyone can remember.

    And partly because there is something about their swaggering rather courageous defiance of the rest of the world which I admire, despite their faults.

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