Backyard Birding High Drama

REd-shouldered Hawk
Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

Posted April 18, 2009
by Clay and Pat Sutton

The Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals, and woodpeckers had all settled in to feed, seemingly comfortably, on a spring day recently in our backyard, when the dreaded European Starling flock descended to the seed.

These ruffians immediately drove the others off, claiming our bird feeders for themselves and rapidly consuming everything in sight.

Yet a turnabout is fair play.

A streak flashed by our kitchen window. We saw no detail, just a flash as the starling flock erupted in panic.

Seconds later there wasn’t a bird in sight – save for two: a young Cooper’s Hawk defiantly mantling his hard-earned kill, one of the starlings that moments ago had been gorging itself on the bird feeder.

Kill or go Hungry

Such high drama takes place daily in the natural world. The balance of nature involves predator and prey, and if it is not always a matter of kill or be killed, for a Cooper’s Hawk near the top of the food chain, it is definitely a matter of kill or go hungry.

If a bird goes hungry too many times, particularly in winter, it will die.

Normally such balancing takes place away from our view – in forests, fields, and meadows, yet it is a daily process, a dance of predator and prey that takes place every minute of every day.

We rarely get to see this natural drama play out while we're drinking morning coffee at the breakfast table.

Backyard Drama

We watched as the young, hungry Cooper’s Hawk began to pluck the Starling. But, nervous due to exposure (predators too must always look over their shoulder), it flew toward the back woodlot carrying the starling.

With the added weight of its prey, the hawk struggled to gain enough altitude to clear the back garden fence and instead hit the fence hard.

Both predator and prey crashed to the ground.

Resigned to not being able to gain the protective forest, the hawk fed in place, and for the next hour we watched the Cooper’s Hawk pluck and devour the European Starling.

It then flew into the woods and we thought the drama was over. Little did we know it was only the intermission.

Round Two

The next morning, while we were again sitting at breakfast, the scene repeated itself. A flash, a blur, a thunderous flush of dozens of birds, and suddenly there was the same fiery Cooper’s Hawk mantling prey – this time on top of the arbor over the garden gate.

In the dance of predator and prey, there was the quick and the dead. This time, the victim was not a starling – it was a Mockingbird.

mockingbird
Photo by Pat and Clay Sutton

It is always interesting how we make value judgements. A starling as prey was OK, even cheered. Starlings are bullies, introduced birds that crowd out our favored native songbirds at feeders and nest cavities.

The Mockingbird, though, was “our” Mockingbird, the source of morning song, our “only” Mockingbird.

Suddenly the Cooper’s Hawk was from the dark side, the evil Chicken Hawk, a bringer of doom. These thoughts were brief, though real, but since we do love hawks, we watched the way of nature.

Round Three

But the drama was not yet over. As we watched the Cooper’s Hawk pluck the hapless Mockingbird, the hawk looked up twice. We followed its wild gaze, but could see nothing. The top of the porch-side Tulip Tree was obscured by the overhanging roof.

When we looked back to the ground, it was as if someone had changed the slide in a slide show.

What we now saw was an adult Red-shouldered Hawk, wings spread, on top of the Cooper’s Hawk.

A wild, flapping struggle ensued. In seconds, the Cooper’s Hawk broke free, fell out of the arbor, and flapped away to the hedgerow.

The bold Red-shouldered Hawk now mantled the Mockingbird and glared about. It then flew up into a nearby tree and devoured the smaller bird. Then, the large hawk disappeared into the springtime woodland.

A few minutes later the Cooper’s Hawk returned. It flew to the arbor and hopped around, clearly looking for its stolen prey, and then flew away.

Wild Kingdom at Home

We had witnessed high drama, a “wild kingdom” event in our own Cape May yard. Something bothered us though.

While it had seemed like a simple case of piracy – many hawks are well known for opportunistically stealing prey from other hawks – it really seemed to be more than that.

We had clearly seen, if only for a millisecond, what looked like the Red-shoulder Hawk’s talons in the Cooper’s Hawk. We didn’t think the Red-shoulder had been trying to steal the Mockingbird. The Cooper’s had been the intended prey.

Life and death in the backyard. Survival of the fittest. In nature, for almost all species, there is always something farther up the food chain.

We couldn’t help but wonder if the Cooper’s Hawk had been injured in the brief but violent encounter. It had been a regular yet stealthy visitor to our feeding station, seen almost daily, yet we didn’t see it the next day or even the next week.

Epilogue

The week after, we learned the answer. While doing spring garden chores, we found the dead Cooper’s Hawk under the hedgerow. It was partially eaten, so we couldn’t be one-hundred percent sure, but our best guess was that it succumbed to the wounds from its encounter with the Red-shoulder.

In nature’s way of predator and prey, the Copper's Hawk had paid the ultimate price.

The feeders have been busy since, with no raiders. The cardinals and chickadees are back (as well as the starlings), and we are confident that a new mockingbird will soon find our Cape May backyard.

The Red-shouldered Hawk has no doubt migrated north by now.

But, as it mantles prey in its New England woodland territory this summer, it too will look over its shoulder lest the ultimate preduator, a Great Horned Owl, is watching.

Such is nature’s way.

 


Clay and Pat Sutton are noted Cape May birders and the authors of Birds and Birding at Cape May.

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