Birds hunting birds, lessons to be learned

Birds hunting birds, lessons to be learned
John C. Lorson

Room service: A Cooper’s hawk enjoys a meal delivered to his doorstep high on a downtown Millersburg building. After several attempts at bursting at the flock as they exited the opening of the bell tower of a former church, the predator switched things up a bit by actually hiding inside, then snagging new arrivals when they came to the door.

                        

The raptor perched as a silhouette, unmoving, back toward the sun, wings folded neatly behind as its eyes followed the swirling flock of pigeons. The bird’s strategic post on the highest peak of the old bell tower suggested a diving attack was imminent. I hadn’t been able to get a close enough look for a positive identification, but the idea the bird would be launching an air-to-air strike had me hoping I was about to witness the work of the greatest aerial dive-bomber of them all — the peregrine falcon.

Finally, as the flock turned in unwitting undulation, the bird launched from the rooftop and plunged headlong into the middle of the flock. Panic ensued, and the pigeons scattered to all points on the compass. The failed attacker made a few embarrassed wingbeats as if to suggest it had just “been passing through” and glided off into the trees, talons empty. And while my mystery bird ended up with nothing, it did leave me with a few good clues as to its identity.

While the attack from high to low may have seemed peregrine like, the bird’s exit into the trees was distinctly not. Having watched a peregrine falcon for hours last spring as it hunted the same downtown flock, I noted he hunted from far on high, soaring at a substantially greater altitude than the pigeons circling below. There’s no better way for a bird to gain speed than to tuck into a dive (or “stoop” in bird terms) and let gravity do the work.

When the peregrine missed, it would either make its way back up to soaring altitude or alight on a high, open perch. This raptor made his move when the flock drew near, but its headlong plunge into the mix seemed random, as if it didn’t really have a target selected. It reminded me of my own early introduction to bird hunting.

I was consumed at a very early age with the idea of becoming a hunter like my brother, Pat. He had dutifully permitted me to tag along on his rabbit, pheasant and duck hunts for years by the time I was granted a .410 bore shotgun for my ninth birthday. Teaching me to shoot a moving target, however, must have required all of the patience the 17-year-old could muster as I spent shot after shot lobbing lead at a flock of starlings that perennially pestered a nearby farm. Finally, after careful observation of my witless approach, Pat asked me which bird I was shooting at.

“Well, I’m shooting at all of them,” I huffed matter-of-factly. “How else am I going to hit one?”

In a few less-than-easy lessons, I was trained away from by poor form and taught to focus on a single bird, which, as you might imagine, made all the difference.

That raptor spearing its way into a full flock seemed every bit like my own flawed approach to bird hunting. The difference is that while I was simply throwing a “Hail Mary” into the crowd, the winged hunter is using the approach to identify and exploit vulnerability. One of those birds may make a mistake, and the hawk can adjust rapidly, change direction in an instant and take advantage.

I’ve seen this sort of bum-rush attack in my own back yard dozens of times from our neighborhood Cooper’s hawk. It dives directly into the serviceberry when the hedge is filled with house sparrows, which sends birds scrambling in every direction. Then in an instant the hawk makes a quick, hopping second strike to come up with its meal.

My mystery bird plunged directly into the flock in the very same manner. When he exited (albeit emptyhanded) into the thick of the trees, it seemed to doubly suggest a Cooper’s hawk rather than a peregrine. Another clue, however, pushed the confirmation even farther. The peregrine, in flight, has slender, noticeably pointed wings versus this bird’s wide, more rounded wings. In that regard this bird had hawk written all over it.

A few days later, I was able to catch a well-lit, face-forward photo of the bird and confirmed the identification as a Cooper’s hawk. The bird seems to have become accustomed to my gawking admiration of late and has posed for a number of great pictures and even snared a pigeon off a windowsill while I was watching one day.

Very common and fun to watch, Cooper’s hawks might easily show up in any downtown, barn yard or back yard in the Midwest. To find them, keep looking up. That’s the secret of life.

Remember, if you have comments on this column or questions about the natural world, write The Rail Trail Naturalist, P.O. Box 170, Fredericksburg, OH 44627, or email jlorson@alonovus.com.


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