Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

June 6, 2013

Enjoying Nature: Quick work saves a beautiful bird

By Don Hazel
Sun contributor

CROSSVILLE — A couple of days ago, I received an urgent call from someone here in Fairfield Glade. Rein and Ellie had previously emailed me some great photos of a flying squirrel at their bird feeder, which I used in an article about the little nocturnal squirrels. This time it was a call involving some daytime excitement at that same bird feeder.

Bird feeders attract birds, and a gathering of any species attracts predators. That is why lions like waterholes, foxes appreciate hen houses and why hawks love bird feeders. If you have ever found feathers on the ground near your bird feeder you have seen the evidence that something was sampling songbirds at your feeder.

Cooper’s hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks love bird feeders because these two birds eat mostly other birds. Both hawks look almost exactly alike, except for size; the Cooper’s hawk is larger. If you have ever seen all the birds at your bird feeder suddenly disappear, one of these hawks has probably been spotted nearby, and all the songbirds are hiding until the danger goes away.

Rein and Ellie had seen feathers in their yard a time or two, but didn’t give it a lot of thought. But last week when they went outside, they found a hawk hopelessly tangled by one foot in the thin nylon netting that was protecting their shrubs from deer. That type of netting catches other animals too. Twice I have helped someone cut a snake loose from netting. When I got the phone call, I called my friend Gary, and we met at Rein and Ellie’s house in less than 10 minutes.

The hawk was a beautiful Cooper’s hawk. Cooper’s hawks are about 16-20 inches long with a wingspan of up to 30 inches. Males and females look exactly alike, except, like all birds of prey, females are larger than males. Juveniles have yellow eyes, but this hawk had the striking dark red eyes of an adult. We couldn’t tell, but we declared this one a female, if for no other reason, just so we could say “her” instead of “it.”

With our best CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) logic, we decided, that probably a small bird was sitting on the shrub near the bird feeder when the hawk swooped in for a catch. Her talons snagged the netting and a twist to get free wrapped the net securely around one toe. The struggle tightened the net even more. There was a two inch tangled ball of netting holding that Cooper’s hawk; there was no way she would ever free herself. We don’t think the hawk was caught for long, because she still had plenty of energy and was very alert. She struggled a little as we approached, and opened her sharp beak, but she never attempted to bite. As soon as Gary picked her up with gloved hands the hawk quieted down. Gary said it was as if the hawk knew we were trying to help her.

I was more concerned about the talons on the end where I was working to cut and untangle the net. You could see how effective those talons would be to grab prey. They were close to an inch long, curved, and razor sharp. I know, because that is how I was able to distinguish the black talon from the black netting. But the hawk didn’t try to use those talons; I poked myself while sorting out the netting.

Cooper’s hawks are in a group of hawks called accipiters. Accipiters have short, rounded wings for flying in tight conditions and making surprise ambush attacks. They flap, flap, glide, rather than soar like red-tailed hawks. I have seen them glide in low below the roof level of a house, and then swoop over the roof and dive down the other side to surprise a bird at a feeder. I have also seen one chase a blue jay from tree to tree. The blue jay would disappear into the branches of a big tree with the Cooper’s hawk right behind. Then a few seconds later the blue jay would emerge out the other side of the tree, with the Cooper’s hawk again, in close pursuit. They went through three trees this way before I couldn’t follow any longer.

You may have heard Cooper’s hawks called chicken hawks. Farmer’s know them for raiding the chicken yard. I don’t think they could tackle a full grown chicken but half grown chicks would be just the right size. I know two people in FFG that have seen either Cooper’s hawks or Sharp-shinned hawks grab bluebirds off their bluebird boxes. Now I know that everyone loves their little song birds, but hawks have to eat too. That’s just nature. A hawk eating a bluebird is no different than a bluebird eating a worm; it is just a little higher up the food chain.

In the end, everything worked out OK. We got the netting unwound from the hawk’s toe, and the toe didn’t appear to be broken. No blood was shed – neither mine, Gary’s, nor the hawk’s. When Gary released his grip, the hawk was gone instantly, and she cleared Ellie’s head with inches to spare, or at least an inch. I can’t be sure, but I think I saw a little wave of a wing saying, “Thanks, boys.”

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Comments, questions or suggestions for future nature articles are welcome at don.hazel@gmail.com