Thursday, March 05, 2015

Hawk vs. Mockingbird

You can always tell when the Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned hawks that hang around our neighborhood are in the area.  Obviously one way of knowing is when you hear their calls or spot them gliding effortlessly overhead, but the fun way of knowing is by observing the behaviors of our yard birds- jays, white-winged doves, mockingbirds, sparrows, cardinals, starlings, grackles.  During the fall and winter large flocks of grackles, doves, red-winged blackbirds and starlings will congregate in the upper story of trees providing easy pickings for a hawk to tear through.  When a hawk is cruising by they burst from their perch all at once creating a sight that will definitely get your attention.  Another way of knowing, especially if one is perched nearby, is the mobbing calls most times by blue jays alerting you that something is amiss.

 There’s a willow tree in my son’s backyard that is part of a thick mass of shrubbery and cane that creates a nice niche for birds to hide, roost, and forage in peace.  But today that peace wouldn’t last for long.  There was a mish mash of birds- grackles, blue jays, starlings, white-winged doves all in this brushy area chattering up a storm when all of a sudden I began hearing a bird screeching as if in distress.  A cry so gruesome that I knew the bird had been snatched by a predator of some sort.  Seconds later every other bird burst like shot from the tree scattering in all directions.  The only sound left behind were the mobbing calls of a single blue jay and the blood-curdling screeches of the captured prey in its final death throes, and then…….an eerie encompassing silence. I walked over and looked up into the willow to see about midways up on a thick willow branch, an adult female sharp-shinned hawk with a lifeless feathered form in her talons. 
Feathers began drifting in the breeze as the hawk began meticulously plucking its prey.  Every now and then she would pause from her plucking to glance back at me as I tried to position myself for a good photograph.  She didn’t seem at all concerned about my presence as she returned to satiating her obvious hunger. 
After getting a few photos of her I crawled through the thick underbrush that skirted the base of the tree and was able to position myself below the branch the hawk was perched. This permitted me the opportunity for photos of the underside of the tail feathers of the prey bird, which I knew would help with its identity.  It was a surreal sight- the tail bobbing up and down with each tug of the hawk’s hooked beak.  At that moment I felt sympathy for the bird it had captured, but at the same time I was amazed at the power and grace of the accipiter as it fed.
I lay there quietly beneath the raptor as feathers continued to rain down around me.  I collecting several of them that I knew would also aid with identification. 
I eventually left the hawk to its feeding and returned about two hours later to find it was still perched it the same spot with what remained of its prey in its talons.  It sat quietly looking directly at me, still without a care that I was so close.
I went to a website I came across awhile back produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service called “The Feather Atlas” and laid out all of the feathers I collected and began searching the image database.  It wasn’t long before I came across the answer I was looking for.  What I had collected was several tail feathers and a couple primary wing feathers of a Northern MockingbirdThe next day I returned to the kill site in hopes of finding more remains, such as the wings or a head, but found nothing.  More than likely she may have taken what was left of the mocker’s carcass to another area to finish.

Other hawk blog posts:  (1)   (2)   (3)

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