FORUM: Birds of Prey

Thus far, I’ve lived in eastern seaboard, southern border, west coast, and Midwestern states in the US. I’ve explored prairies, woods, forests, deserts, wetlands, rivers, and beaches everywhere that I’ve lived. In this activity a few vertebrates I’ve encountered in the wild triggered my consternation.

One species was venomous snakes, particularly Sidewinders in Arizona (https://odajournal.com/2021/01/27/forum-sonoran-desert/) and Water Moccasins in Virginia.

Another species was birds. A prior post described my experience with a kettle of Turkey Vultures which presumed I was their next meal: that experience motivated my metamorphosis from boy to man (https://odajournal.com/2021/01/02/forum-step-by-step/).

Since that time several other bird species spurred my evolution.

Bald Eagle

My first “up close” experience with a bald eagle occurred in July, at base camp 9,800 feet above ground level at the trailhead for Castle Peak in Colorado—the ninth-highest summit in the Rocky Mountains. It was late morning, rain had stopped falling, and my brother-from-another-mother Fred and I exited our tent to enjoy the refreshed air and admire mother nature. We were observing a pair of Yellow-bellied Marmots, one male and one female, which had emerged from their den to survey their surround. They were perhaps thirty feet above us and sixty feet away, comfortably resting on a rock ledge. All was quiet and serene.

Suddenly, behind us, we heard what I imagined was a jet aircraft crashing. Fred and I turned toward the sound and watched a Bald Eagle turn its wings 90 degrees—changing from swept-back (like a fighter jet) to air-brakes. As the wings scooped wind to slow the eagle, it’s talons opened as its legs moved forward. The eagle sunk its talons into the neck and back of the larger marmot. Without stopping its glide, the eagle’s legs and wings returned to the forward flight position. Within perhaps a minute, the eagle had cleared the mountain to our right, which we estimated as 11,000 feet. Within another minute the eagle was behind us heading toward an even taller peak. Fred and I reflexively donned our high-visibility caps to ensure that no eagle mistook our heads for a marmot.

Several decades later I lived in Mendota, Illinois, a town 85 miles southwest of Chicago. A popular attraction there is the 18-acre Lake Mendota, with a mean depth of six feet. The lake has a healthy population of Bluegill, Catfish, and Largemouth Bass up to 16 inches in length. The lake also supported a healthy population of approximately 200 Canadian Geese separated into two gaggles on opposite sides of the lake, and a raft of 200 Ring-necked Ducks (https://mendotareporter.com/article/gathering-of-geese). I’d hike around the lake most every day, typically in the morning.

In the forest behind Lake Mendota lived a convocation of six bald eagles. On several occasions I witnessed an eagle cruise over the lake like a ghost, catch a largemouth bass using its talons, and fly into the forest. Several times a week the grass around the lake was spotted by six or more piles of feathers—each created by an eagle dive-bombing a goose. By the end of the summer half the geese were gone, and the two gaggles merged into one. Similarly, half the ducks were gone. The remaining geese and ducks spent most of their time beneath stands of large trees which made it more difficult for eagles to blitzkrieg them.

Rough-legged Hawk

I lived in the extreme northwest neighborhood of Chicago, marked by many old, tall deciduous and evergreen trees. Every block in my area featured an unusually tall power pole on top of which was a nest of a Rough-legged Hawk. These birds of prey kept Rat, Squirrel, Rabbit, and Pigeon populations in balance, though I’ve never seen a hawk attack its prey.

Walking to the supermarket I noticed a group of more than a dozen people from the neighborhood standing approximately 30 feet from a minivan, observing something. When I arrived, I saw that everyone was watching a rough-legged hawk sitting on the roof of a four-passenger Toyota car. The hawk was much larger seen close-up than when flying in the air or sitting on its roost. To me the most impressive aspects of this bird-of-prey were its beak—which I thought was a surgical instrument designed for amputation, and its claws which I imagined were dinosauric ripping and tearing shears.

It seemed perhaps the hawk had an internal injury. It would bend in the abdomen and lower its head parallel to the road, then stand up straight, and then lean its head down again. Leaning over with its eyes shut, emitting a low-pitch groan, suddenly—like a cannon ball being fired, a white two-inch diameter “ball” shot with tremendous velocity from its behind straight behind the hawk, parallel to the street. The ball impacted the windshield of a minivan parked behind the Toyota, creating a large debris field shaped like half a sphere, at least 15 feet in diameter, in which a rainbow appeared until the white matter fell under the influence of gravity. People gasped, some cried out, a few ran away.

The bird stopped its gyrations, rested a moment, hopped twice on the hood of the Toyota, and took flight. In moments it appeared to be small again, as it landed on its telephone pole and surveyed its domain. This bird could injure or perhaps even kill a human using its stool as artillery, let alone using its beak and claws. Respect was earned by that bird that day, by everyone present for its morning evacuation. I wonder what the minivan owner imagined had happened…

Red-winged Blackbird

I was playing a round of golf at Waveland golf course, adjacent to Lake Michigan on the north side of Chicago. I hit a roller into a bush line running along a wire fence, so I went to find my ball. Using my three iron I started pushing branches a bit so I could see beneath them. Without warning something began boring into the top of my skull like a pneumatic drill: painful, targeted, rapid hits, one after another. I took off running at flank speed. The drilling stopped after I’d run about 60 feet to the end of the fence. I stopped running and examined my cranium using my hand, checking for blood. I looked about for the cause of this attack but saw nothing.

I reversed course and started to walk toward the next tee on the other side of the fence. Without any warning, the drilling of my head started afresh! I ran again, thrashing the top of my head in an effort to ward off the evil golf course spirt which was tormenting me. I stopped after another 50 feet and looked to my side. I saw it land on a branch, and it was looking into my eyes! Smaller than a Robin, the little black bird had brilliant red bands running across the front of its wings: a Red-winged Blackbird.

Perhaps attributable to the part of my DNA which descended from avian survivors of the fifth mass extinction, I immediately understood this was a male (female birds are typically bland to help avoid detection by predators) that was protecting his mate’s nest, eggs, or babies. Nevertheless, I pointed my three-iron at the tyrannical bird, moving it in little circles, and advised him that enough is enough. We’d arrived at a mutual understanding to leave each other alone.

Two decades later, a week ago, I was walking by Lake Michigan on the Loyola University trail. Through the bushes separating us, I noticed a couple pushing a baby stroller down the sidewalk that paralleled the walkway which I was on. Suddenly the woman began screaming and running, flailing in the air above her head with one arm, and pushing the baby carriage down the sidewalk with her other arm. The man stood his ground to try to protect the woman, but was unable to maintain his chivalry for long. He ran, following the woman, waving one hand in the air and using the other hand to protect (and subsequently massage) the top of his head.

As the couple briskly fled, I rounded the corner to see the sidewalk where this madness had transpired. It all made sense when I realized that the couple had ignored signs demarking the “danger zone” of the sidewalk.

A bit of observation soon confirmed my hypothesis: a Red-winged Blackbird was the culprit.

“…this bird you cannot change” (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Birds of Prey

June 23, 2019

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

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