Saturday, June 01, 2013

Red-tails, Mallards & Walt Disney‏

            Fearless Predators -- Nurturing Partners
         The Most Amazing Red-tails I’ve Ever Met

Like all of you, I enjoy watching birds and have a variety of bird feeders scattered around the yard.  Observing the birds as they come and go provides endless hours of entertainment.  This year’s spring migration has been our best ever -- an incredible listing of 56 bird species seen from the kitchen window so far.

In addition to the more exotic neotropical migrants, we also receive daily visits from several of the more common bird species.  One of the more unusual entries in this category -- at least for my backyard -- is a nesting hen mallard.   Ever since the snow melted this spring, a good portion of my backyard has been underwater.  Consequently, the area I normally mow is now a pond.  This development did not escape the attention of a pair of mallards who soon claimed the “temporary wetland” as their own.  Before long, the hen became visibly heavy with eggs and soon began disappearing into heavier cover.  Within a couple of weeks, the drake was on his own again.  From then on, we only see the hen during a brief period each afternoon when she emerges from wherever her nest is hidden to get a drink and to scavenge whatever seeds may have been spilled from the feeders.  I have fully expected raccoons to discover and devour her nest but, so far, all has proceeded on schedule --- that is until yesterday afternoon.

Shortly after arriving home, I peered out the kitchen window and was pleased to see the feeders humming with activity.  But when I returned less than five minutes later, the scene had changed dramatically.  So much so, in fact, that I could scarcely believe my eyes.  As usual, the hen mallard had appeared in the yard; but on this occasion she wasn’t looking for spilled grain.  Instead, the duck was lying flat on the ground -- less than 15 yards from the house -- with a red-tailed hawk standing on her back.  Who would believe it?  Racing for the camera, I began to document the incident.  After obtaining several ‘voucher photos’ through the kitchen’s double-paned glass, I dropped below the window opening and attempted to quietly slide open the frame for a sharper picture.  Just as I was about to make my move, the mallard suddenly flexed her left wing.  Could the hen still be alive?

Surveying its surroundings for possible danger, the red-tail remained still as a statue -- one foot completely wrapped around the hen’s neck, the other on the ground.  Maybe the hawk had caught the duck mere seconds before I discovered the scent and had not yet dispatched its prey.  The question was answered when the hawk caught the movement of my hand at the window and immediately took wing.  Just as quickly, the mallard was back on her feet -- ruffled, but apparently otherwise unharmed.  Ignoring the nearby pond and spilled bird seed, the terrified hen lost no time in returning to thick cover.  As she disappeared, I couldn’t help but wonder if the duck would ever realize how very fortunate she was.  Once a red-tailed hawk has its foot securely wrapped around a bird’s neck, the chances of that bird surviving are virtually nil.  My arriving home and looking out the window had cost the hawk its meal, but had also spared the mallard’s life.  Whether my accidental intrusion was good or bad is purely a matter of perspective. 

For me, this spectacular true-life, backyard birding adventure was highly unusual to say the least.  The event was also extremely puzzling.  There is no denying that red-tailed hawks are formidable predators.  And although winter hardened red-tails routinely subdue larger prey such as cottontail rabbits and fox squirrels; their fierce aggression usually wanes as smaller prey species such as mice, ground squirrels and garter snakes become abundant in summer.  Why this particular red-tail chose to take on a full grown mallard -- in a backyard -- on the 29th of May, will likely remain a mystery.

What is not mystery, however, is the hawk’s identity.  I know the bird very well.  He’s an adult male and we’re practically on a first name basis.  The hawk and I have, in fact, been neighbors for the past eleven years.

The red-tail and his mate currently have a nest on the edge of a mile-long cattle pasture on the south side of Clear Lake.  The nest is located about a mile from my house; at least as the crow -- or in this case the buteo -- flies.  I first became acquainted with the pair in 2002.  That’s when they moved in and built a nest in a small oak woodlot where I sometimes hunted for deer.  [Red-tailed hawks exhibit a wide range of plumage variations and both members of this pair had unique markings that made future identification a breeze.]  Life was good for the red-tail pair --- catching mice and thirteen-liners, eating snakes, raising babies, riding the thermals.  Following a few successful seasons, the good times ended abruptly one winter when a pair of great horned owls appropriated the nest for themselves.  It’s a fairly common occurrence, and the hawks responded by moving a half mile east and building a new nest.  Although the new location offered fewer trees and less protection from the weather, the pair enjoyed several good seasons and usually produced at least two young each summer.  But the good times ended once again when a violent summer storm swept across the pasture in 2010, completely destroying the second nest.  I didn’t see the hawks again until weeks later when I spotted the female limping along near the south edge of the pasture.  Dragging her left wing, the bird appeared to be in rough shape.  Whether the injury had been caused by a collision during a hunt or by the previous storm was anybody’s guess.  It was mid-August and what was certain was that the bird had been rendered flightless, and flightless raptors simply don’t survive in the wild -- or do they?

Returning to the pasture some time later, I spotted the hawk again.  This time, she was at the edge of the pavement feeding on a road killed raccoon.  To see this formerly magnificent and successful raptor reduced to feeding on carrion was a sad event and starkly depicted how desperate the situation had become. 

Later that day, I saw the female again.  This time she had company.  The male was with her, and I began to wonder if it was possible that he would attempt to care for his mate in the same way he would attend to a grounded fledgling.  As it turned out, that’s exactly what the male did.  He fed and protected his grounded mate until weeks later, her injured wing began to slowly show signs of improvement.  In time, the female was able to hop to a low perch, to the top of a wooden fence post, and finally to a low branch.  Slowly but surely, the red-tail was recovering.  Weeks later, I spotted the female along with her faithful companion, perched on the wooden cross bar of a power pole.  Although the female was still favoring her left wing, I began to believe that she really might live to survive the injury.

The hawk grew stronger by the day, and by early October she was back riding the thermals and hunting for herself.  In February of 2011, the pair began constructing their third nest.  This time, the birds chose a sturdier tree located about 20 yards from where the last structure blew down.  During the summer of 2011, the pair raised two beautiful young.  Last year was also a success and, although I don’t yet know many babies are in the nest this year, the pair is currently raising their 2013 crop of young.  What I do know, is that these red-tails have had an incredible life together so far.  They also represent the one and only example that I know of where one hawk has successfully rehabilitated another.  As far as I’m concerned, this raptor pair definitely belongs in the Red-tailed Hawk Edition of the Guinness Book of World Records.  Walt Disney himself couldn’t have dreamed up a more amazing story or happier ending.  In the great out-of-doors, fact truly can be stranger than fiction.
Lowell Washburn 
Clear Lake, Iowa  
May 30, 2013