Mama Hawk, Baby Raccoon, and Wild Animals’ Perceptions of Us

One Stuck Baby

 Tuesday morning there was a heartwarming story in our wonderful neighborhood online newspaper, the West Seattle Blog, by a kindhearted man who rescued a baby raccoon who’d gotten stuck between the planks of the man’s fence. As the man told the story, the mother raccoon glanced back at him “as if to say ‘thank you'” before she left with her tired but free baby.

Our next-door neighbor has a deck that apparently provides an excellent roof under which to raise baby raccoons, and each year there’s been a raccoon family with annually adorable kittens. And because several years ago they discovered that on the other side of our cat door they’d reliably find deliciously crunchy cat food, raccoon family stories seem to have been passed on from generation to generation about the treasure trove inside.

So each year when raccoon-kitten time comes, one morning we’ll come downstairs to find muddy footprints around the cat-food dish, and then we have to figure out how to discourage this year’s cohort from making themselves at home.

Last week the current mother raccoon came up on the deck looking for a way to get to the lunch counter. Her right eye is white and her right ear is slightly tattered, so I figure she’s been around the block a bit. She had made friends with a wild-animal-loving friend of ours who house-sat for us a couple of years ago, so I squatted down in front of the open back door and extended the back of my hand.

She came over and sniffed it, then cautiously headed for the opening behind me. I had the sense that she trusted me but wasn’t too sure about my partner (a feeling he reciprocates). I gently discouraged her and she ambled off under our back fence. I don’t think she should come into our house, really, but I can’t help being glad that she seems not to be scared of me.

So I could really empathize with the man’s story about rescuing the baby raccoon, and I hope I would have done the same thing with the grace and intelligence that he did. I’d like to think the mother raccoon was indeed grateful to him for freeing her baby.

MamaHawk’s Difficult Encounter

The Cooper’s Hawk babies are within a few days of fledging now! They’re rapidly acquiring mature plumage, their fuzzy white angelic wings becoming darker and more textured.

Cooper's Hawk nestling - near fledging (about 24 days old)

Earlier the same morning as the baby raccoon report—really early for me, like 6:15—I had been in the Lincoln Park woods watching as a fellow birder, a hawk expert whom I’ll call Steve, prepared to trap my Cooper’s Hawk mother, so that he could band her and more effectively track her in coming years.

When I arrived at the nest, the hawk nestlings were stretching and flapping in the dawn sun; MamaHawk was nowhere to be seen.

Suddenly Steve saw her arrive, flying up to a nearby tree—without carrying food, which was a significant observation for his purposes. The hawk trap was a cage with live sparrows in it, and the idea is that when the hawk sees the agitated birds and attempts to take one, her legs become entangled in the wire jesses looping around the outside of the cage. A hungry hawk is more likely to see the caged sparrows as breakfast. Usually the sparrows aren’t harmed, since the hawk can’t actually get to them, which I was really glad to know.

Steve went quickly to a nearby field, within view of where the hawk was sitting, to set the cage on the ground and hide. Within about a minute, the mother hawk sailed straight down to the trap, and a moment later I heard Steve call out, “I’ve got her!”

His helper and I ran over. With professional efficiency and gentleness, Steve stretched her legs out, folded her wings, and inserted her headfirst into a hawk-sized can so she couldn’t injure herself as he worked. He examined her feathers to assess their maturity (she’s a second-year bird, somewhat immature for a mother, as I’ve noted before), measured her talons, unfolded each wing to feel for body fat so he could estimate her health. I was glad to hear that she’s in average-to-good shape.

Then Steve clipped a silver band on her right leg and two blue bands on her left leg, sealing them with a kind of stapler after making sure that they were loose enough on her unusually thick legs. Finally he pulled her out of the can and sent her flying on her way.

I wondered whether she’d be so traumatized by all this that she’d be anxious about landing on prospective prey for a while, potentially making her babies go hungry—and whether I’d ever again be able to get close enough to take her picture after what I imagined was a pretty terrifying encounter with humans.

But later I began to rewonder: could she have thought that the human was actually rescuing her from a bad situation, like the baby raccoon’s? Was her experience that she was trapped and struggling, but was helped by a human who went to some lengths to free her? How well can animals discern our intent in interacting with them? When she looked down at us from her tree after her release, was it with well-earned fear or “as if to say ‘thank you'”?

Yesterday afternoon, I was photographing the Cooper’s Hawk babies flapping at the edge of their nest, looking like little ospreys as they get ready to leave their first home for good.

Young Cooper's Hawks - about 29 days old

Young Cooper's Hawk stretches its wings - about 29 days old

I was so relieved when MamaHawk flew in and landed directly above my head, where she stayed for 45 minutes preening and watching her nest.

Mother Cooper's Hawk preening

She was still there when I left. Thank heaven.

Mother Cooper's Hawk watches over her nest

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3 responses to “Mama Hawk, Baby Raccoon, and Wild Animals’ Perceptions of Us

  1. In my old house, each February marked the arrival of my raccoon family that moved into a crawl space in my house. I spent many a dollar and many an hour trying to figure out how they got in, but never did. Which, after a year or two, was fine with me. Guests that visited were somewhat surprised at hearing the racket they would sometimes make when the babies were hungry and mama came back with food. I got used to it in time and actually looked forward to it. Lots of people warned me about the damage they could cause, and although I was concerned, I wasn’t concerned enough to trap them, which a lot of people suggested. Thanks for the raccoon story, it warmed my heart to know there are others out there who have a soft spot for raccoons.

  2. I don’t have the richness of wildlife that surrounds you, but my rhododendron bush serves as the outdoor cafe for many little birds. I can sit in my living room and watch them as they eat their seeds. A neighbor has a feeder, but it is rather exposed (indeed, one morning as I shoveled snow, a sharp shinned hawk snatched a bird right off the feeder. So the wee birds like the privacy and relative security of my overgrown rhododendron.

    • Your rhododendron bush sounds pretty rich with wildlife to me! Can you get pictures and post them? Can you figure out what kind of birds they are?

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