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Avian CSI and My Unique Theories

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Yesterday was another crests-up day, all day long. The sharp-shinned hawk made an appearance in late morning, but I knew he'd been hangin' around, because there was nothing happening at the feeders, despite the steadily falling snow.

My photos of the sharpie are all terrible, but it's because he's old and wise and he knows to sit well out of camera range. He's no dummy, and he's a good hunter. I've heard a sudden bird squeal from his favorite part of the north border, and on the day I'm chronicling here (November 21), I saw him make a kill.

The jays were merrily feeding, crests straight up, when he came in from the southwest like a blue bullet, looping up just enough to clear the house, then diving on the feeders. He did a barrel roll which bottomed out right in the middle of the jay flock, and came out with something in his fist. My heart was in my throat but I instantly ascertained that his prey was much too small and brown to be a jay. Besides. He's not after jays. He'd have a terrible time subduing one. He doesn't want a fight. He wants food.

I watched him as he took it into the north border and made a mental note to wait a few hours, then go into the woods to try to find the kill site. I wanted to give him plenty of time to consume the bird. Photographers and birders take note: The last thing you want to do is chase and disturb a hawk that's just caught a bird. You could make him drop it, and that would be a very bad thing to do. It would be a waste of a good meal for a bird who needs it badly. Leave him alone. The only look you'll get is him leaving the bird behind.

Sharp-shins are declining precipitously in the U.S., even as Cooper's hawk populations are burgeoning. Why would that be? Aren't there enough feeder birds to go around? The simplest, most surprising explanation would be that Coops have taken to eating their smaller cousins. Terrible thought, but it appears to be true.  I hate it when nature works like that, but it is what it is. It's called habitat partitioning. And it will force the sharpie to live in places where Cooper's hawks aren't. Feeders, thanks to their unnatural concentration of songbirds, bring the two together. As I think about it, most precipitous declines can be traced to an anthropogenic cause. 

As I pontificate on why there are so few sharp-shinned hawks around, realizing that I'm sewing this mostly out of whole cloth, I'm seeing John Cleese as paleontologist Anne Elk, introducing her groundbreaking new theory about the brontosaurus, stridently stating, "This is my theory. It is mine, and I came up with it. It is an original theory, and it is my theory." 
Many thanks for giving delightful flesh to my hazy memory to

So I was not about to disturb this accomplished little sharpie at his meal. I waited about four hours, then I went out.

It didn't take long to find the shadow of his lunch. The curious will want to click on and embiggen all these photos.

Let's have a closer look at that. 

There were only two scraps of anything resembling bone.

Mandible, neatly cleaned. Scoop-shaped, conical. So it was a finch. 

Pinkish-red rump feathers. Dull brown flight feathers. It was a male finch. Purple or house? We have both, and their colors have evolved to be nearly indistinguishable here in the East. When they first arrived, house finches were an easily-separated tomato red, to the purple finch's raspberry wine. You could tell people to distinguish them that way, and I did. No more. They're almost the same color now. There might be some adaptive value to cooler reds in the East. Less need to radiate heat? This is my theory, and it is mine. No one else has come up with it, because the theory is unique, and it is mine. Channeling Anne Elk again. Brain on overdrive today.

The answer to the victim's identity is here, in this photo below. Anyone know why?

It was a male house finch, because those three buffy undertail coverts to the lower left have brown streaks on them. There are no brown streaks anywhere on a male purple finch. Case closed. Except for cool leftover bits of info.

 Here are the sharpie's droppings. There are almost always droppings at a kill site. 

 You can tell they're hawk droppings because they squirt out in a line. Owls drop a puddle, straight down.

 All this took place just inside the woods. That's our garage there, and the yard.
Sharpie knows where the good food is. 

I was a little rattled by the close call. What if he'd grabbed a jay? Telling myself he won't. And when I came out of the woods I found big clumps of rabbit fur.  Aww, no. Please no. I can't lose Half-ear Smalley! He's only five months old!

It didn't look good for Smalley. But I searched and found no blood. Just clumps of torn fur. So maybe he survived whatever had happened to him.

Nov. 21, 2018

I didn't see him for a few days. I figured a coyote had nabbed him.

And then on the morning of Nov. 24, he showed up again. 

Whewwwww. It is ever thus with rabbits, eminently edible, dear little creatures that they are. They're always looking over their shoulders, and I am too, on their behalf.

I've since found more such fur clumps, with no blood or bone or sign of major struggle, and I have to conclude that the rabbits are fighting these days. Over what, I don't know. Maybe corn.
Please, Nature Gods, don't take Half-ear Smalley. I need warm furry things around to watch, feed and love, even if I can't touch them.


Can't say I've ever seen a sharp-shinned hawk. The Coopers hawk snacks around my feeder along with an occasional kestrel. The red-tails stay mostly in the woods, hopefully reducing my grey squirrel population. I root for the red squirrels, though I only have seen one at a time. Their size make them more appealing for hawk food I suppose. The coyotes get plenty of grey squirrel too as they leave their poops in the middle of my driveway.

I didn't see the hawk well enough to ID but one snatched a Blue Jay out of the tree by one leg and flew away with it. Raw nature. I am somewhat perplexed to have never seen a wild rabbit on my property in 24 years. Once a neighbor let his domestic rabbits loose but they didn't last long either. Probably coyote and fox.

Glad to know my failure to distinguish between house and purple finches is not entirely stupidity. We get both at our feeder, too. My neighbor witnessed a sharpie take a hummingbird right off her feeder; amazing! Love your commentary; best wishes for Smalley. Methinks you might need a house bunny. Something you CAN keep safe, not as needy as a dog (for when you're traveling) or dangerous as a cat.... There's usually some at animal shelters that need rescuing!

Michelle and I have discussed at length the housepet issue. Allergies stand in my way as regards lagomorphs, felids and even lots of canids. The central issue, though, is that I have no reliable backup; my nearest neighbors are willing and wonderful but they travel a lot more than I do! The Universe will eventually provide. Far as I'm concerned the ideal pet for me is a wild bird I can raise and release. I miss having a dog something fierce, but I am elated to be free of the worry that accompanies them.

Whew—for both the jays and Smalley!

Usually I can do is process “tiny raptor” before they are gone, no clue on coopers or sharpie. I don’t see them quit often enough to refine my impressions to bird in such fleeting glimpses, saw one at the head of my neighborhood the other day. I work at a park and this morning a hermit thrush hit the window, I put it inside in a box to hopefully recover but it died. It’s so hard to be a bird in the human’s world.

I learn so much from you; thanks! And you are such a fun teacher, too!

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