Tag Archives: cooper’s hawk

Is Play for the Birds? A Lughnasa Reflection

Today marks summer’s midpoint, Lughnasa, the magic moment halfway between the solstice and equinox that open and close the bright time of year.

Summer, the season of play. Lincoln Park’s saltwater swimming pool is open, and the bluff above rings with the exultant sounds of “Marco!” “Polo!” and shrieks and splashes of kids emerging from the spiral slide into the deep end. Kids built forts—

Fort on Lincoln Park beach

Fort on Lincoln Park beach

—frisbees soar across park lawns, volleyball games sprout on Alki Beach. We play by moving ourselves around in fun ways, by moving things around in playing catch or to build interesting structures, and by horsing around with each other.

* * * * *

The forest’s birds play too. Continue reading


Engaging Gazes: Mysteries of Animal Presence

Tiptoeing towards the back of the clearing, I was looking for the brown creepers I’d witnessed a few days earlier, flattening themselves against the bark of the big Doug Fir. It was such strange behavior, and I was hoping to see whether there might be a nest under the thick bark.

Brown Creeper in concealment posture

Brown Creeper in concealment posture


Brown Creeper in concealment posture - closeup

Brown Creeper in concealment posture – closeup

I stopped a few yards from the tree, watching as silently as possible so the creepers might fly down and resume their strange posture. It took several minutes of waiting before I realized that silently watching me was a young Cooper’s Hawk, finishing a meal or just resting on top of a brush pile near the fir. I turned slowly to face him full on. He poked around the brush for a few minutes, then fly-hopped down and disappeared. Drat. I figured that in a moment I’d catch his blurred form flying to the forest across the clearing.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk

But no: his head reappeared above a closer brush pile. He walked dignifiedly over it, then paused for a while. We locked gazes.

Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk: The Animal Gaze

What an honor, to be embraced in the gaze of a wild animal, free to flee at any moment, but who chooses to share a calm long look.

In Estes Park, Colorado over Thanksgiving, mule deer and elk similarly held me in view.

Mule Deer, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Elk, Estes Park, CO

Each of these encounters is a blessing. But the wild hawk’s gaze was particularly potent. The elk and deer are residents of the Estes Valley, adjacent to Rocky Mountain National Park and populated by humans, so they’re pretty used to human contact. The young Cooper’s Hawk, though, wasn’t acclimated to close encounters of the human kind; it hadn’t been that long since he learned to fly and left his nearby natal nest, and his part of our park isn’t heavily traveled by human walkers.

Did the hawk engage my look simply because I’m something unusual in his birdy world? Or could he have recognized me as a fellow being, a creature with a mind behind the eyes, like him?

How rare it is for us humans to be encountered in the wild by an animal who seems without fear of us, and even more powerfully, to whom we are of calm interest. To see ourselves in their eyes, to be recognized in some way as having a presence, perhaps even being of a kindred nature, perhaps, ultimately, with personhood — such an experience reminds us who we are. That yes, we are giftedly animal, we belong, we too dwell here as earth-creatures in community with others whom we dearly love through the veil of species-separation.

The animal gaze has long been considered a special gift, especially the “natural zoological gaze” of an animal unconfined, in its wild native habitat [1].Some deep part of us yearns for this recognition. There is a deep wound in our souls, I think, bleeding from our sense of being torn from the animal world.

We express our yearning for animal presence in diverse ways. Tourists like to hand-feed wild sheep, interviews indicate, because they want to feel trusted by an animal who takes food from their outstretched palm [2]. A young girl is in love with dolphins, reaching out to feed them for $7 at SeaWorld – and when she forgets the rule about not moving the paper dish with the food in it, triggering an inadvertent bite as the dolphin grabs the moving dish, she prays for the dolphin’s safety, not her own [3]. People put their own lives at stake rather than evacuate without their pets during Hurricane Katrina [4].

Illuminating research is being published these days about the human-animal bond that can heal this wound: for instance, Bekoff’s Minding Animals, Frohoff and Peterson’s Between SpeciesKalof and Montgomery’s Making Animal Meaning, and large numbers of articles in scholarly journals. We’re living in a time when there’s a real resurgence of interest in this ancient archetypal relationship.

What does it take to increase our opportunities for engaging gazes with a wild, free animal?

  • Quiet presence. We have to learn to calm down ourselves, to sit still in one place, to not be alarming.
  • Familiarity with where animals live. Spend time observing animals in their habitat. Watch where they hang out and where they hide. Learn how they behave and how their behaviors vary at different times of day. Over time, with patience, we may be blessed with an animal’s acceptance of our presence.
  • Respect. We can allow an animal to recognize our presence without threatening the animal — or feeding it. Let it come to us rather than going to it, and stay still if we’re so honored. And if the animal doesn’t choose to encounter us, we respect that choice.
  • Peace. If an animal isn’t interested in us, that’s perfectly fine. What a privilege it is simply to get to watch or hear it in its own home, close up or distant!

I’ve become “engazed” with the Barred Owls in my park, who are beloved by many of my human neighbors. Some of us have had the privilege of watching these owl life-mates hunt, feed their babies, teach their growing children how to walk along high branches and how to navigate through the forest, encouraging them when they fall and welcoming them when the youngsters make it back up into a safe tree.

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

Barred Owl fledgling crossing forest floor, parent standing guard above

I visit the owls’ hangouts each time I walk in the forest, hoping to have my heart filled a little fuller by their gaze. Today, I was lucky. I left a little less animal-lonely, a little more healed.

The gaze of a Barred Owl

The gaze of a Barred Owl

Nourishing Nature: Who are parks for?

It was a sweet morning scene: parent-child pairs of crows foraging on the freshly dewed ballfield. The youngsters, even two whole months after fledging, were following their parents, pleading with their baby voices to please be fed.

Young crow begging from parent, who has captured a bee

Suddenly the crow voices changed to loud squawks, and I turned to see a young Cooper’s Hawk fluttering among the crows. The Coop flew back to a nearby tree, and the young and grownup crows went back to feeding. A few minutes later, squawk! as the Coop dove again towards a young crow, talons extended. The target flapped out of reach and again the Coop retreated.

It was a young hawk, unbanded, perhaps one from the nest I was following this spring and summer.

Young Cooper's Hawk in fir, watching prey

To my eye, crows look just as big as Cooper’s Hawks, and they’re remarkably intelligent and feisty to boot, so I was pretty surprised to see this hawk continue to try to pounce on them. But the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says that Coops actually prefer medium over small birds; maybe the potential nourishment available from small birds isn’t worth the trouble?

A squirrel was foraging nearby, but since I’d heard that Coops feed almost entirely on birds, so at least here was one critter I didn’t have to worry about.

Until now.

A flurry of brown wings at ground level, and I held my breath.

Cooper's Hawk attacks squirrel

In a couple of moments I could see the squirrel nonchalantly poking at the ground a couple of feet away from the hawk, apparently not only unscathed but barely bothered by the Coop’s attack. After trying once more, the hawk gave up and returned to crow hunting. The parent crows finally got tired of her harassment and began to pursue her, and finally she left without catching any breakfast.

Young Cooper's Hawk sneaks up on unsuspecting parent-child crow pair

Young Cooper's Hawk and crow face off

Young Cooper's Hawk and crow fighting

(You can see more photos of the Coop and crows on my Flickr site.)

Was this young bird particularly hungry, going after the difficult prey of crows and squirrel in desperation? Is there enough nourishment in this urban place to sustain fledglings?

Lincoln Park comprises 135 acres of mixed forest and meadows, along with a mile of shoreline. It’s apparently enough habitat to provide steady support to the nesting Cooper’s Hawk pair, along with a pair each of nesting Barred Owls and Bald Eagles, and millions of other creatures that fly and flitter and forage here.

But this urban green space also provides nourishment to the thousands of humans in its vicinity. Human nestlings and fledglings, as well as the adults of the species, need convenient green areas—parks, playgrounds, greenbelts—for play and peace. We’re nourished by natural spaces in ways that are critical not only to our physical health, but our psychological health as well. If we’re going to sustain ourselves psychologically, particularly in urban settings, we need nearby nature.

My city’s Parks and Recreation department has created a “gap map” of open spaces throughout the city, in which neighborhoods are characterized by how close they are to a public open space, and which areas are in need of increased access to green spaces:

Seattle Open Spaces Gap Map-2009 (click on the map for a larger image on the city's official website)

Proximity of urban natural areas is an environmental justice issue. One of my students conducted an important research project assessing the distribution of playgrounds among neighborhoods of different income levels in my city, and found that the average density of parks in the highest-income areas was more than triple the average number in the lowest-income areas.

People struggling financially may need local natural places even more than those who are more comfortable. Yes, my city is between three of our country’s most glorious national parks—

Seattle's regional setting

—but getting to those requires a significant effort in time and transportation, commodities not plentiful to everyone, humans or other. We need everyday parks for everyday nourishment.

If you live in Seattle, how close is the nearest green space beyond your yard? Does it provide enough nature to nourish your human and nonhuman neighbors? If you live elsewhere, how good a job does your city do at providing these places that are critical for both humans and the more-than-human world?

Young Cooper's Hawk flies off in search of better hunting grounds

Awakened by the god in favor of drums: An ode to jay

“I’m sure there’s a god in favor of drums,” writes Pattiann Rogers. That god had a hard time getting my attention on Monday morning (surely a hard time for all gods in that endeavor), when I was wandering around my woods disappointed to have had no sign of my beloved young hawks.

I was so attuned to hawk-shaped spaces that it took me a while to even notice the quiet rhythm at the edge of the trail. When the sound finally pierced my hawky haze, I thought that, well, at least I might get to see a Hairy Woodpecker even though I missed my young accipiter friends. But all I saw in that area of the forest were a couple of Steller’s Jays, so I moved on.

I arrived at the hawks’ favorite hangout at the convergence of three trails, where they sometimes perched on a tall snag above the grassy area where I was standing, near some beaked hazelnut shrubs. No hawks. But again I heard the tap-tap-tapping, and was surprised that I would have chanced to hear a second Hairy Woodpecker in a single morning, when often I don’t encounter any for several weeks.

A Steller’s Jay landed in the hazelnut shrub, apparently a young bird because it seemed to be having a hard time landing properly, flopping around for several moments. I figured it must have given up when it flew off to a wide, strong branch low on a nearby Doug Fir.

Then I heard that now-familiar light pounding from the jay’s direction. Sure enough, there it was hammering away on the branch.

Funny how long it can take, while you’re busy pursuing your agenda, to realize that the real story is somewhere else entirely.

Having finally been awakened by the god in favor of drums, I watched more closely as several jays flopped around in the shrub, their lovely blue feathers glowing among its bright green hazelnut leaves. I followed one with my binoculars as it flew up to a tree, and saw it hammering the hazelnut seed until the prickly cover came off. It then swallowed the nut whole.

Steller's Jay extracting Beaked Hazelnut

Steller's Jay swallowing Beaked Hazelnut whole

In making my quick assumptions about the jays’ behavior, I hadn’t been giving them due credit: what I thought was an inexperienced young jay landing unsuccessfully was actually a show of remarkable acrobatic expertise. Paying better attention, I saw that the jays were managing to land on the flimsy twigs that supported those luscious hazelnuts, and while precariously hanging on (often upside down), they were able to wrestle the nut’s twig until it broke off.

Steller's Jay pouncing on Beaked Hazelnut stem

Steller's Jay, one foot holding down the beaked hazelnut stem while he tries to break the stem with his beak

They then had to extricate themselves from the shrub without losing the nut, and fly with it to a stable nutcracking platform. All this intricate maneuvering going on around me, unappreciated, while I kept looking for something that wasn’t there.

How many other aspects of my life fit that description, I wonder? How many marvels go unnoticed, how many stunning beauties shimmer in secret places I’ve overlooked? Sometimes I think that my own “work of loving the world” takes the particular form of exulting in the exquisite quotidan beauty that helps to unweave my web of ego.

It’s hard work, this vocation of appreciation; it takes minute-by-minute mindfulness and openheartedness in an age of distraction and destruction. You have to maintain a delicate equilibrium, staying aware of our environmental crisis while feeding your hope with beauty, and I’m not as good as my jays are at the acrobatics of hanging onto thin twisting twigs while reaching for that precious nut. But it’s my only alternative to despair, and I have to believe it’s well worth the work.

Jay's efforts rewarded

Hawk Ballet: Practicing Preying

Imagine you’re a young hawk who just can’t wait to launch out on her own for the first time. Your attentive mother, with help from your father, has been feeding you your whole life: bringing you breakfast in bed, then converting your bedroom to the dining room once you hopped out of the nest to nearby branches. When she lands on the nest with food, you and your siblings run chattering to the dinner table.

But now you’d rather not wait for mother’s home delivery service. You’d sure like to be able to eat when you’re hungry rather than waiting for her! But how on earth do you figure out how to nab those goodies–small birds–yourself? You have to practice: practice flying to the prey, practice nabbing it, and practice taking it back up to somewhere you can eat it in peace.

So now that you’re in hawk-mind, imagine: what could you possibly find in the forest to use as a small-bird-like toy to practice with?




A pine cone, of course!

Just about the right size for a young bird’s talons – check. Placid and therefore easy to nab – check. Grippable in flight – check.

Easy to land with? Not so much. Especially when you’re a little wobbly on the landing part anyway, even without a carryon. Here’s the young Cooper’s Hawk trying to get her balance as she lands with her cone:

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk ries to get her footing while landing with pine cone

And examining her prize:

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk examines her pine cone prize

Of course, if you’re all grown up and you catch your prey in one place and decide to eat it somewhere else, you’ve got to know how to keep hold of it while pivoting on the other foot to get the best takeoff angle; here’s our young hawk practicing that difficult maneuver.

First, she rises up from the branch:

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk starts to take off with cone

Then she flaps, rotating on her left foot while she holds the cone in her right foot:

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk rotates on left foot while holding cone in right

Then she settles briefly down while still holding the cone in her right foot.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk completes rotation while holding cone in right foot

A moment later she took off through the trees, pine cone presumably still in her talons.

Two days later I saw one of the young Coops with what sure looks like actual prey.

Juvenile Cooper's Hawk with first prey?

Practice-preying pine cones pays off…for the preyer if not the preyee.

Out on a limb, close to home: Teen hawks’ lunchtime and the future of natural history

Our three adolescent hawks were anxiously waiting while their mother prepared lunch in the home kitchen. They kept hopping up to the nest as if to see if the meal was ready yet, then MamaHawk seemed to shoo them back out to give her room so she could tear up their prey for them. They’re still not too sure on their feet/wings, so they often wobble a bit as they move from branch to branch. (Clicking on the photo will take you to the short video.)

Three young Cooper's Hawks wait impatiently for lunch

While she was working, two of the juveniles (perhaps grumpy from their empty bellies) tussled on a branch below, one eventually knocking the other off–

Young Cooper's Hawk gets knocked off a branch by its sibling, while MamaHawk prepares lunch in the nest above

–then both of them flew to a nearby tree. I could hear lots of whistling and squealing, which I finally decided was actually coming from these big babies.

Just as I changed my camera from video to still-shooting—of course it would be just then—Mama gave some kind of signal and everyone flurried excitedly up to the nest and dug in. In this brief video you can see a couple of the young ones tugging at the same piece of delectable meat: “Mine!” “No, MINE!” Another of the young left the nest after just a minute or so of feeding. Was he not hungry? In poor health? Already fed? After a few minutes, Mama flew off the nest, landing on one of her regular perches over my head to preen.

I’m surprised at how closely the young hawks are still sticking to the nest. Do they still sleep there? Back to the cradle at bedtime? It was fun seeing the three juveniles cozied up next to each other on this branch next to the nest, right at dusk.

Three young Cooper's Hawks at dusk, ready for bedtime?

So many questions, so few answers.

As I’m writing about the young hawks’ development, when all these questions come up, I use Google Scholar to see what research has been published on such events. Ideally, we backyard naturalists can embed our local natural-history observations in the published research, so that we can contribute to or at least be informed by what others have done.

So it’s interesting that most of the publications I dig up on nestling-hawk education seem to come from the 1980’s, and many from other countries. Natural history in this country has seen a decline, both in professional research and in the classroom, and to me this is such a loss. The studies from the ‘80’s are still completely valid, of course—observations are observations—but surely there’s more left to observe and understand here in the ‘11’s.

Natural history research is experiencing hard times vis-à-vis funding, and these days it sure would be hard to get tenure at most universities on the basis of your natural history work. Fortunately, the National Science Foundation sees that there could be excellent research possibilities for natural history, and it’s supporting a terrific new initiative called “From Decline to Rebirth: The Natural History Initiative,” organized by the Natural History Network. I’ll be writing more about this initiative in future posts.

Branching hawklets

The young hawks have started branching! This means that they leave their nest to hop along nearby branches, practicing their balancing and flight skills—and equally important, their landing skills.

Look at this sequence, which I was lucky enough to catch just as I got to my viewing site. The nest is that mass of twigs in the lower right quadrant of the photo, and in the first picture, the hawk is standing on it facing left, stretching his wings over his head like a high diver…which he sort of is, or will be. A second young hawk is perched about 10:00 from the jumping one. (You can click on the photos for a larger view; I wanted to leave the photos this size rather than cropping further, to give you a better sense of the aerial context in which he’s doing his exercises.) Total elapsed time for all eleven photos is six seconds.

Young Cooper's Hawk doing wing stretches

Young Cooper's Hawk gets ready to jump

Young Cooper's Hawk lifts wings to jump

Young Cooper's Hawk in mid-leap

Young Cooper's Hawk touching back down

Young Cooper's Hawk lands

Gawain is strengthening both his legs and his wings as he jumps on the nest. Just as he lands in the photo above, he twists and fly-hops over to the next branch. turns around, and awkwardly returns to the nest, seeming to almost tumble head-over-heels into it:

Young Cooper's Hawk leaps out of nest, legs akimbo

Young Cooper's Hawk makes it to the next branch

Young Cooper's Hawk turns around to hop back to nest

Young Cooper's Hawk lands awkwardly in nest

Young Cooper's Hawk rights himself in nest

Anyone else remember those awkward teenage years?

Here’s one last photo of one of our young hawks for today, still looking like an angel up there on the branch below the nest:

Young Cooper's Hawk on branch below his nest

Of course, as they get more independent of the nest it’s harder to find them in the woods. But their mom is still staying nearby, watching their arboreal gymnastics.

Mother Cooper's Hawk watching her children like a ... hawk

Last night’s West Seattle Blog reports that a different young hawk was found in the next watershed over, apparently unable to fly. It sounds like someone who’d earlier seen the same bird was harassed by the young one’s protective mother, and finally a noble rescuer put her baby in a carrying case for transport to a local wildlife rescue organization.

Was that the right thing to do? It’s hard to say. If it was really young or injured, yes; if it was just on the ground for a little while, having lost its grip on branches above, then maybe a good approach would have been to lift it up onto a higher branch (to get it out of the way of dogs, for instance) and let it fly-hop its way back upwards with its mother’s encouragement.

But it sure is good to know about the folks out there who take the time and trouble to try to care for a young wild creature. Hopefully we’ll get to learn more about what happens to it!

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