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Birds plummet to the ground

OUT-Nature-niche-Ranger-Steve-Head-ShotBy Ranger Steve Mueller

After supper at about 7:20, I sat on the back the porch. There was little bird activity. A lone darner dragonfly was hunting at tree top height. Small birds too high to identify flew over. A robin, hummingbird, and morning doves perched in the trees.

Suddenly there was commotion in a tree top and a bird appeared to plummet to the ground. A Sharp-shinned hawk had a Mourning Dove in its talons. The dove struggled but did not get free. The hawk was immature, with dark barred feathers running vertically on its light breast. Adults have transverse bars across the breast.

The young bird began plucking feathers from its prey in preparation for dinner. Feathers were flying in all directions. The hawk’s tail raised in the air and I saw tail feathers were all the same length. That confirmed it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk instead of a similar looking Cooper’s Hawk.

Cooper’s Hawks have tail feathers that are successively shorter outward from the center of the tail. The Sharp-shinned’s tail feathers are all the same length and make the tail appear squared at the end instead of rounded. Sharp-shinned hawks are slightly smaller but size is hard judge. The head on Sharp-shinned is not as bulky as that of Cooper’s.

Suddenly more commotion while the hawk was plucking its prey. The hawk must have loosened its grip and the dove escaped. I thought the dove was dead and maybe the hawk did also. The two were about 50 feet from me, as I watched the drama with binoculars. The hawk pursued the escaping dove and the dove managed to bank to tall grass and irises by the porch, about 15 feet from me. The hawk was right on its tail, but the dove entered and hid in the vegetation. The hawk attempted to reach the dove as it moved to protect itself and the hawk jumped backwards.

I could not see the dove in the vegetation. The hawk moved around the clump figuring out how to recapture its prey. Though I was sitting 15 feet away as still as a statue, the hawk saw me. The hawk’s attention was divided between me and the dove. The hawk was nervous with my presence and flew up and landed on our picnic table. It continued to watch me while I pretended to be invisible.

The hawk flew to a low branch on a dead ash tree in the yard. A Mourning Dove perched at the top of the tree departed. The hawk surveyed the area and must of have felt too threatened by my presence to return to the grass clump for its dinner. It flew over the house and out of sight.

I felt badly for the injured dove and would prefer the hawk had killed it for a filling meal. By departing, the young hawk will need to capture another live bird. I went into the house with hopes that hawk would return to finish what it started before it was completely dark.

Hopefully the young hawk learned the hunting lessen that it needs to kill its prey before plucking feathers. I once witnessed a Peregrine Falcon capture a dove and it almost immediately opened the skull and began eating the brains. It left plucking for later. This young bird might go to sleep hungry because darkness was closing the day.

We attract birds to seed feeders and hawks to feed on live birds. People generally do not mourn the sunflower seed embryos eaten by birds but they mourn the loss of birds we feed. In healthy nature niches, there is a place for seedeaters, and for predators that eat the seedeaters. When niches are healthy, there is an abundance of life to provide nourishment for migrating hawks that need adequate energy for their southward migration.

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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