Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 22, 2010

Why’d the Chicken Hawk Cross the Road?

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 1:29 pm

The title of this entry pretty much explains my initial reaction upon seeing an immature Cooper’s Hawk standing in the middle of the road. The bird stoically stood her “ground” as I approached. This was no silent approach on my part, mind you, I was in my big gray (actually gray-brown due to the thick layer of winter dirt) Chevy Blazer. The unusual sight slowed me down to a crawl as I scrambled to grab my camera. I needn’t have been so cautious because the creature stayed in place long after I’d positioned myself to lean out the window and snap away. In fact, she stayed put for a good long minute until another car came along from the opposite direction. Even then, in the face of a big red-brown F-250 pickup, she reluctantly flew up into the surrounding brush at the last minute.

This same bird was in the same place when I passed by the same spot ½ hour later! I slammed on my brakes the second time and slid for ten feet. The bird watched me complete this graceful maneuver before taking a leisurely flight to a nearby limb.  Here she perched and glared (see below) until the gray brown vehicle moved on.  Later in the day, several other folks commented that they too had seen this crazy thing in the road.  At the time, I could not answer the “why” questions that followed.

Cooper’s Hawks are not rare, so my attention in this matter can’t be categorized into the “rare-sighting” column. In mid-winter these birds are a very common sight due to the fact that they seek out neighborhood bird feeders to feed on the patrons. They are “bird hawks”; specialized in the art of taking small-medium sized birds. Most feeder owners are very familiar with this species and their reactions run the gamut from hate to acceptance to sheer excitement.  Love ‘em or hate ‘em, however, they are used to ‘em.

These predators are masters of patience who spend a lot of time doing absolutely nothing. More often than not they adopt a bolt upright pose and perch in plain sight. They will stay in position for so long that the feeder birds, endowed with frightfully short term attention spans, eventually return to their banquet. Soon one of them becomes the main course when the hawk launches into a swift attack upon the feeder.  Another tactic employed by these slender hawks is to approach a potential target area by flying in low to the ground using some sort of obstacle, such as a house, as cover and then lunging over the top and down onto their startled quarry. Somehow Mourning Doves are always the last to react to such an attack (“What the heck…hey, where is everyone go..”) and  so become the entree.

In the above circumstances, the hunter appears only as a deadly blur in the last few seconds of the attack. At first I believed that my road hawk had just nabbed a dove and was in the process of plucking it. There was no prey in view either under or near, however. My bird was not in blurry hunting mode and so was clear in every detail. In fact, based on the swollen appearance of her crop, it was obvious that she had recently eaten.  The bulge had a faint dove look to it.

At the very least this provided a good opportunity to see the identifying details of an immature Cooper’s Hawk. The size and proportion of the J-walker marked her as a female. Sharp-shinned hawks, even the larger females, are smaller and more delicate in appearance than the female Coopers. Coops possess thick powerful feet and long tails which are rounded at the tip (Sharpies have slender legs and squared tail tips). Mature Coopers have ruby red eyes and stern expressions accentuated by a dark cap, while the immatures have piercing yellow eyes. Mature birds have a slatey gray back (similar to a dirty gray brown Chevy, as a matter of fact) and a reddish brown breast with horizontal streaking. Immatures have a white breast marked with brown vertically oriented streaks.

So, alright, the question remains as to why this Chicken Hawk was in the road?  Apart from the singular possibility that it was a young stupid fowl with a death wish there must have been something drawing there. There was also the possibility that I was witnessing a living, soon to be dead, punch line – you know the one about the chicken crossing the road to get to the other side. Encumbered by the need to elicit humor, my correct answer took longer than it should have to come to the surface.

You’ll note that every shot I took had a nice mirror reflection in it (see images here and above) because the bird was always standing in a pool of shallow melt water. She was attempting to take a bath in the only liquid water available at the time. The continual traffic was interrupting her cleansing efforts.

Hawks don’t need much water for bathing. They seem to prefer shallow puddles, under 1 ½ inches deep, in which to perform the duty. These hawks are especially prone to bathing in backyard bird baths. If you don’t believe me, just Google the words “Cooper’s Hawk, Bathing” and you’ll be treated to dozens of on-line videos showing this very thing.

Oddly enough every one of these bathing beauty videos appears to depict an immature bird, which begs another question that shall remain un-answered for now. There were no videos of any mature birds in the bathing process (perhaps someone out there might investigate this).  Also, as far as I could tell, no one has a video of a road bathing bird either, but then again, neither do I.

1 Comment »

  1. What fun to follow you puzzling out this hawk’s story. And thanks for describing the differences between Coopers and Sharp-shins, the adults and the immatures. We get both kinds — and both ages –at our feeders here in downtown Saratoga Springs, NY, the Coops grabbing the doves and the Sharpies lunching on sparrows. We collect all the neighbors’ Christmas trees and stand them around the feeders and that’s where the sparrows hide. But the Sharpy sidles right in among the branches, soon there’s a rustle and ruckus, and Sharpy hops out with a sparrow. Very sneaky!

    Comment by Jackie Donnelly — January 22, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress