Against the cold gray backdrop of Lake St. Clair Metropark the pile of fish parts looked rather festive. The golden bellies and speckled heads of gutted perch, bluegill and sunfish stood out clearly on the grass where an ice fisherman plopped it next to the parkway. Although the placement was questionable, the pile provided a tempting bounty for the local Red-tailed Hawks. It also proved to be a battleground for two immature birds seeking sushi.
By the time I came upon the scene, a single bird was picking away at the pile. A second hawk then floated down from a nearby Cottonwood and approached the first. Both contestants flared up and temporarily locked talons. With open mouths, flank feathers puffed, and wings held open, the two birds disengaged and resorted to a silent dance. Each attempted to intimidate the other.
Both birds were young-of-the-year Red Tailed hawks. Their tails were still brown and heavily barred and their eyes yellow – traits that morph into a reddish orange tail and brown eyes by the second year. They were equally sized as well. The only real difference was that one, the original owner of the pile, was darker than his competitor (see below).
The stand-off only lasted a few minutes before the outsider flew back to his perch on the Cottonwood. Surprisingly, the darker bird also abandoned the fish pile soon after. Even though he was already full, as indicated by his bulging crop (the lump under his throat), he felt compelled to defend his riches and claim victory before abandoning it. I guess it was a matter of pride. The lighter bird eventually claimed the prize and was so engaged in gorging itself that it allowed me to approach within a few feet. He would not flush even as cars rushed by.
Whenever two or more Red-tails gather there is bound to be conflict. Even mated pairs will tussle from time to time. Fortunately nature has arranged it so that the larger females seek a slightly different prey base than the smaller males (as in the wife going to Kohl’s and the husband to Dunham’s Sports). This takes the edge off the potential competition between the two. Immature birds, being what they are – as in immature – will often duke it out with their fellow raptors. Their plight, however, is much more serious than just a hormonal tiff.
In the stark world of raptors most of the young birds die young. A majority, in fact, never live to celebrate their first birthday. This mortality is played out to the tune of 80%. The raptor reaper wears out dozens of scythes per year in the performance of his grim duty. He gives no quarter for young birds striving to navigate the painfully steep learning curve of independent life. Winter is his finest hour. They don’t call it the dead of winter for nothing.
It will take every fish pile, road kill, and scrap of food to get a newly minted Red-tail through the winter. Young birds often rely on roadside carrion and become victims of road traffic themselves– becoming the dead feeding upon the dead. They must also learn to navigate through their new territory and discover the best hunting grounds and roosting locations.
The desperation of these fighting hawks is highlighted because they are fighting over a pile of dead fish. Typically over 80% of a Red-tail’s diet will consist of rodents, both the killed and pre-killed variety. Fish are so far down on that list as to be hardly worthy of mention. It is akin to two children fighting over a plate of okra and liver. But beggars are not choosers, as they say. About the only way a Red-tail can expect fresh fish is to hang around human fisherfolk. In retrospect this is not a bad idea.
To end on a high note, it is also a stark fact of raptor life that birds making it over that first horrendous hurdle of mortality can actually live long productive lives. It is not unusual for Red-tailed Hawks to reach twenty or more years of age in the wild and even longer in captivity. By all odds, one of these birds will meet up with the reaper before the end of winter…but the ice fisherman of Lake St. Clair might have a role in beating those odds.