Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 26, 2008

Death in the Snow

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:14 am

There is a constant battle for life going on out there beyond our doorsteps. I am referring to the interplay of natural players. We only rarely see the interaction of predator and prey, and often that is reduced to a fleeting view of the chase. More often than not, we are not there to view the exact circumstances of death or experience the thrill of the final escape. When we are witness to a “kill,” it becomes a rare and singular experience.  Because of this we tend to view violent death as a rare thing in nature. Nothing could be further from the  truth. Death, raw and definite, is an essential part of the natural scheme – as common as the passing of a cloud and as regular as the flow of water down a stream.

I was not witness to the common death of a Mourning Dove in my own backyard but, thanks to the snow track record, I can testify as to some of the particulars. In viewing the scene (see below). I believe the victim was attacked while in the air and brought to earth. A few drops of rich red blood surrounded by a halo of feathers and wing marks (see detail here) indicates where the bird was dispatched and a series of scooping wing beats (see detail here) reveal where the killer struggled to get airborne with her hefty meal.

The scattered feathers, like the single contour feather shown above, are enough to identify the victim as a Mourning Dove. These birds are common features of the winter landscape. They gather into small winter flocks and are frequent visitors to neighborhood bird feeders. I don’t have a feeder (surprising, you may think, for a naturalist but I’ve got my reasons) but I do have plenty of large spruce trees and a small stream for cover and water. On any given day, therefore, there are plenty of doves around. This also implies that my yard is a regular hangout for bird predators who stop in to scope out the joint, so to speak.

The predator in this case was probably a female Cooper’s Hawk. Cooper’s are “bird hawks” who specialize in avian prey. The females are larger than the males and they have more “umph” in their hit. This means that they can take down larger birds. A female Cooper’s weighs in a over a pound, whereas their male counterparts are closer to 12-13 ounces. Mourning Doves weigh only about 5 ounces, but are relatively large when you consider their wingspan and lengthy tail.

My statement that the killer was probably a female is also based on more than gender supposition, my dear Watson. There is a perfect spread eagle…er, spread hawk…er, snow angel imprint right next to this kill site (see here). I’m thinking that the hawk could have missed as part of an earlier attempt on a different bird and plunged into the snow as a result.  The wingspan indicated by this mark is clearly in the female Cooper’s range.  There is a more obscure repetition of this spread eagle, or whatever you want to call it, pattern surrounding the actual kill location and the wingspan measurements are about the same at both spots.

I can also theorize that Col. Mustard was hiding within the cover of nearby spruce tree boughs and that he, or she, launched several attempts from that location before achieving success. She returned to the base of that very tree to finish off her meal (see here).

Dove feathers were scattered all about the kill site. Accipiters, such as the Cooper’s, pluck their prey before eating it. It is a point of professional pride among them I guess. This evidence alone would have identified both the type of perpetrator and the exact identity of the “perputee” in a snowless landscape.  As it was here, we have a sort of surveillance tape record of the event starkly recorded in the snow.

It is important to keep in mind that this situation, in spite of my inexpert use of police terminology, was not a crime.  It was merely a chance record of real life.

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