Birds & Birding

It’s Raining Blood and Feathers: Catching the Spring Raptor Show

May 2, 2017

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Cooper's Hawk. Photo © Sagamore66 - Own work, Public Domain

A splash of red caught my eye as I strolled across the yard. A wildflower? Not quite. A quick look revealed a very bloody leg, with a furry paw still attached. Tufts of grizzled and reddish fur revealed the victim to be an eastern fox squirrel.

Just a half hour earlier, I had idly watched four of these squirrels as I wrote. They fed on corn I scattered around our bird feeder, jostling with each other for choice morsels. The fresh blood suggested one of these squirrels had been a bit too preoccupied with the treats.

The next day, within a few yards of the squirrel remains, I found a scene that looked as if someone had detonated a miniature pillow. I recognized the feathers as those of California quail, another frequent visitor to our corn.

I suspected a Cooper’s hawk had taken up residence in the neighborhood. Each day brought signs of new kills, often quail. Last evening, as my son and I played in our front yard, I heard a loud kak. A glimpse up our tallest tree revealed my hunch was correct: a Cooper’s hawk perched there, pecking and pulling at a small bird of undetermined species.

Most people associate dramatic predation with National Geographic specials. But you don’t have to turn on the television, or take a distant safari, to see the spectacle of predator and prey. Chances are, there’s a very effective predator near you. And now’s the time to catch the show.

Raptors are highly skilled hunters. In North America, right now they have nests filled with hungry young. They need to kill a lot of prey to ensure the next generation survives. The adults are in full-on hunt mode.

Photo © Mike Fugagli

Thanks to conservation measures, many raptor species are now common across the continent. Some of the most dramatic predators can be observed hunting in farm fields, suburban backyards and even amidst the skyscrapers in the biggest cities.

Here are three of the most dramatic examples to watch this year. Look up, but don’t be surprised if you get pelted with falling bird and rodent parts. I’m serious.

Cooper’s Hawk: The Terror of Suburbia

The Cooper’s hawk is one of the most stunning avian hunters, capable of chasing prey through trees, making sharp turns through steep cover. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these maneuvers come at a cost: “In a study of more than 300 Cooper’s Hawk skeletons, 23 percent showed old, healed-over fractures in the bones of the chest, especially of the furcula, or wishbone.”

By Tony Alter from Newport News, USA [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cornell’s site notes that Cooper’s hawks catch birds with their feet, then squeeze by holding away from the body. Researchers have even documented the hawks holding prey underwater to drown it.

Due to their woodland lifestyle, conservationists once believed that development threatened this species. But it turned out that its aerial hunting maneuvers fit perfectly in a suburban environment, with its mix of trees, parks and bird feeders.

I’ve always been impressed by how adaptable these predators are. They often migrate through an area of small farms where I hunt quail. One day, I noticed them seeming to follow me, hopping from tree to tree, as I worked along a line of brush hoping to flush gamebirds. When the quail finally flushed – out of range for me – a Cooper’s swooped in and nabbed a quail out of the air.

I continued to hunt, and it became apparent that the Cooper’s hawks were using me as their form of hunting dog. Every time I flushed birds, one deftly picked a meal out of the flock. I could see how the idea of falconry arose.

The California quail, house sparrows and eastern fox squirrels in my neighborhood are all non-native species. But they’re abundant and the Cooper’s hawks take advantage of this abundance. The critters are often easy to catch as they lounge around bird feeders.

Lately, I’ve noticed the local squirrels aren’t lingering. They nervously grab a kernel of corn and run back to the trees. They know there’s danger above: the Cooper’s hawk rules the suburban jungle.

Peregrine falcon in Colorado, United States, North America. Photo © Janet Haas

Peregrine Falcons: Flying the City’s Not So Friendly Skies

When I step outside my office in Boise, it’s raining birds parts. Starling heads, pigeon legs, feathers attached to flesh, unidentifiable bloody bits.

The peregrine falcons are hunting.

Peregrine chicks. Photo © Kurt Burnham

The recovery of peregrines is one of the most dramatic conservation success stories ever (see my previous blog for the full story). One of the factors that aided in their recovery is that the skyscrapers of urban environments mimic their deep-canyon natural habitat.

The city environment teems with abundant prey in the form of pigeons and starlings. The peregrine hunts high in the sky, dropping down on lower-flying birds – one of the most breathtaking sights in nature.

The local peregrines often land on my office building, where they begin the process of dismembering their catch. At this time of year, feathers often float by The Nature Conservancy’s office windows, as well as the assorted bird parts.

You can watch the same peregrines I do. The Boise peregrines are featured on a live nest cam, offered by the Peregrine Fund (the organization largely responsible for the falcon’s recovery).

Two male northern harriers fighting over a nesting territory on Seedskadee NWR Photo © Tom Koerner/USFWS

War of the Raptors

Perhaps the best spring raptor viewing is when you can find multiple species nesting in the same area. Expect posturing, thievery and sometimes even intense aerial battles.

My favorite spot to watch these interactions is the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area, a 485,000 protected area near Kuna, Idaho. It’s worth the trip if you’re a birder or naturalist.

The Snake River Canyon in this area is home to one of the highest densities of nesting raptors in the world (as well as the highest density of badgers). The predators are here for a reason: ground squirrels, and lots of them.

I have sometimes wondered what it’s like to be a ground squirrel here, as the air is constantly filled with danger. But the rodent’s nightmare is a birder’s paradise: Prairie falcons, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, American kestrels and various owls can all be spotted in a spring outing.

Prarie Falcon at Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area; photo © Larry Ridenhour, BLM

The birds will be out hunting, or defending territory. Oftentimes, though, it’s after a successful hunt that the real fun begins. Other raptors won’t pass up an easy meal, and stealing a dead ground squirrel is easier than hunting a live one.

On one outing, I watched a prairie falcon swoop in and snag a ground squirrel, only to be quickly chased by a harrier and two ravens. The interlopers tried various tactics to dislodge the squirrel, until finally the falcon dropped its prey in mid-flight. As the ravens maneuvered, a golden eagle swooped in and calmly took it away. No birds challenged the eagle.

The stakes are high for nesting birds of prey: they need to catch a lot of calories to feed their chicks. For many naturalists, witnessing predation is one of the pinnacles of wildlife observation. Grab your binoculars and enjoy the spring show.

Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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5 comments

  1. The neighborhood Cooper’s Hawk terrorizes the quails and small song birds. For some reason, doves seem impervious to the hawk’s attacks.

    A couple of years ago, one of the hawks buzzed my head, missing me by about 14″
    as it maneuvered between tree branches and fence tops going from one yard to another.

    Hawks in the warmer weather spells and Great Horned Owls in colder weather keep all the other wildlife visitors to my yard on alert constantly.

  2. Might want to review the Cooper’s vs. Sharp-shinned ID pages in the field guide…

  3. I haven’t noticed that much activity where I live. I’lltry to be a little more vigilant. Yourarticle was well written. A joy to read.

  4. I liked all of the article on raptors as they are my passion. However, there was no mention of the Sharp-shined Hawk. The Sharpie is just as likely to be found in a backyard as a Cooper’s and in some areas, more numerous. Two of the photos are misidentified. The photo of the accipiter eating the dove is not a Cooper’s hawk, it is a juvenile Sharp-shined Hawk. The smaller photo of the bird near the bird feeders is also a Sharpie. So Cooper’s and Sharp-shine’s both rule the surburban jungle.