Monday, August 17, 2009

John Blakeman Answers Mai's Questions about Crummy Red-tail Hawk Feathers and a Miscellany of Birds

April 5, 2009.

Here is the Red-tailed Hawk pair who nested on County Rd. M, Rock County,WI. Or the Ms for short. Here they are in their fine Spring breeding feathers before the wear and tear of tending eyasses takes it's toll on their plumage.

Though after observing both rural and urban Red-tails, it appears to me that the rural hawk feathers stay untattered and look fresher longer than the ones being worn by their urban counterparts. I surmise that scraping against a building is more damaging than scraping across a tree branch.

Now the dialogue between Ohio hawk expert John Blakeman and long time blog reader Mai--

Hi John,

Long time no talk! Hope you're having a fine summer. What are you up to this summer? Of course, you know about the tragedies of two of the RSP young ones. "Slow" signs will be going up sometime on the highway, but it remains to be seen whether that will help. Unfortunately, RSP is much narrower than CP, and much closer to fast-moving traffic.

I felt bad for the remaining RT fledgling, who obviously missed his/her siblings. But I assume that at some point, he/she will find a mate and start, so won't be alone.

I was noticing in the pix today on Lincoln's website in the closeups of the RSP female RT, that there seems to be a darkness, like a dark line, at the outer edge of her left eye (right on our screens). I wondered whether it indicated something wrong, like the beginning of a growth on her eye?

I'm certainly not an expert and could be completely wrong -- what I'm seeing could be completely normal. Would appreciate your thoughts.

Best to you,



No, nothing wrong with the RSP formel. She's in the molt and looks pretty ragged. She's lost some feathers around her eyes, making her look abnormal. Nothing amiss.

I will be trapping a new red-tail in Sep or Oct, as Savanna II died last winter. I'm seeing a good number of immatures this year, so our hatch was good---unlike last year when very few fledged. It was the lowest number of successful nests I've ever seen. Back to normal this year.

I'm nicely involved in a bunch of prairie landscaping projects this summer, and continue to advise NASA in the management of their 6400-acre Plum Brook Station here in northern Ohio, restoring vast expanses of native prairie. Very exciting.

Keep in touch.

--John Blakeman

Hi John,

Many thanks for your response, I'm glad to know what's going on with the female RT. I knew you'd know the answer! Those parents seem committed to that territory, which is nice because it provides us with good views of them and their nesting activities, including eyasses, but unfortunately has some terrible hazards.

You've probably also noticed, on Donna's website, that there appear to be an RT pair in Tompkins Square Park. TSP is also not a large space, so when/if this pair decides to have a family, I hope the people in that area will be careful and thoughtful of the RTs. I'm afraid NYC is going to run out of parkland for these determined birds!

You do have an interesting life! Your projects sound as though they're not only enjoyable, but mightily worthwhile. Is/will the Plum Brook Station be open to visitors, once its "native prairie" restored? It would be very interesting to see what the prairie originally looked like.

Good luck finding a new RT, altho I do have qualms about keeping such magnificent wild creatures in captivity!



First, take no concern for the red-tail I'll be taking from the wild. If it were to sit merely in some zoo cage, or even in some state park's animal display area, I'd be a bit concerned myself. But understand that my falconry red-tail will have virtually all the advantages (psychological, medical, nutritional, safety, and flying and hunting) that wild birds have. In fact, my captive falconry birds have it better. They have all of the above, in spades, but still get to do everything a wild red-tail does except mate and breed. And that's not really a high priority for them. At least a third, perhaps half, of all the wild red-tails simply never breed. (And that's why NYC and other cities are being invaded by red-tails, who can't find an empty territory in wild rural areas.)

And just as everyone has seen with the eyasses produced in NYC in the last two decades, fewer than half ever attain full adulthood. That's not so with falconry red-tails, who almost universally live rewarding, full, long lives.

Here's the crucial thing. When I trap a red-tail in autumn, she is first alarmed, as she's a wild animal. But within two or three days in my care she realizes that things here aren't so bad. Good food every day, shelter from rain and storms, and the opportunity to fly each day. She soon finds that this falconer guy actually provides rewarding experiences, which finally results in wonderful hunting events. We don't hunt puny little field mice. She finds that when she sits on my fist out in the field, somehow, a bunch of cottontail rabbits start running away. Chasing, killing, and eating those is about as good as red-tail life gets.

And that's the crucial matter. A falconer's birds are flown free. The bird on each hunt (and during most advanced training sessions) has the opportunity to simply, as we say, "fly over the hill," deciding to return to a life in the wild. I've never had a hawk do that. They always elect to fly back to my fist and be cared for, flown, hunted, and sheltered. Life for them is exceptionally rewarding and good. They know that. If it weren't, they wouldn't voluntarily come back after each hunting flight. These birds aren't dumb. They know a good thing when they live it.

One last point, and this is crucial for an accurate understanding of all of this. If I were to trap a haggard and try to use it for falconry, the bird would instantly fly over the hill at it's first chance. I once did trap a haggard, for some research I was conducting. I kept it for a winter, and could always detect its profound aversion to living in captivity. That's because red-tails become mentally hard-wired to life in the wild in their first winter. By next spring, this year's eyasses will be mentally hard-wired adults, incapable and unwilling to make any mental adjustments to life in captivity, no matter how good that might really be. This is why falconers never, ever trap or use wild haggards.

But the bird I will be trapping will take a week or so to get adjusted to life in a big outdoors mews (hawk enclosure). Because this is the bird's first autumn, it soon thinks that, hey, this must be what happens when I get this old. Let's see what happens.

For these newly-trapped and well-cared for birds, it's all natural and good. They fit right in with things as they find them, which are very good.

So, take no concern for the hawk's mental state. She will be as happy and rewarded (actually, more so) than any of her wild, un-trapped compatriots, a good number of whom will not survive the winter.

Right now, the 10 sq-mile NASA Plum Brook Station is off limits to the public, for safety reasons regarding the rocket engine and other tests done there. But I've convinced PBS officials that we should let the public in on John Blakeman-led field trips, to seed the stunning natural history of the site. They have fully supported this, and tomorrow (it may thunderstorm here) I will be leading a 2-hr field trip through the natural areas of PBS for scientists and employees at the NASA Glenn Research Center 60 mi away in Cleveland. They want to see the phenomenal nature stuff at this almost-wilderness site.

I'm also conducting a half-dozen public field trips this summer and fall. Eventually, a representative portion of the Station may be open to the public from time to time, to experience the landscape-scale prairies I'm restoring there, putting it back the way it was in presettlement times, 200 yrs previous.

Yes, it's a stunning opportunity (and obligation) I have at Plum Brook Station, one that so few are ever afforded. The site was the easternmost large tallgrass in North America, where the fertile Midwestern prairie soils began. I'm privileged to be able to restore much of this, perhaps 2500 acres, eventually to it's original state. It will match (or exceed) anything in Iowa or Illinois.

Can you imagine the feeling of standing next to a giant, open meadow field where I've planted the original prairie grasses wildflowers, and this year, seeing some of those gorgeous flowers come into bloom, once again after 150 years? Then, next March I'm in charge of setting the place on fire, recreating the landscape fires Native Americans set at the site for several thousand pre-columbian years. The fires, with quarter-mile flame fronts and 20-ft flame heights coursing over these meadows are one of the most awesome events in nature. And I'm the guy who lights the first drip torch and tells the crew where to make the first flame fronts.

The tallgrass prairie, of course, is dependant on the restorative nature of annual spring fires.

Nothing like it in all the world.

--John Blakeman

Many thanks to John Blakeman for forwarding gthe conversation and to Mai for asking the questions. Last but not least, for newcomers, the address for Lincoln Karim's website is

I was out puttering around the countryside when I discovered this flock of Canada Geese also puttering around and having a grass snack. The appearance of my vehicle prompted them to stare but they weren't bothered enough to make a break for it.

Going a little further down the dirt road, I spied a flock of Wild Turkeys I got out of the car but let it idle and left the radio playing. The turkeys gave me a look but as I wasn't turning off my engine they seemed perfectly happy to be observed. When I did turn the car off and got out for a better view a number of turkey heads popped up on alert and stared. keep in mind I was at least 100 yards away but after a moment they then changed their foraging angle to bring them to the field's woodline instead of foraging at their previous speed and angle.

Barn Swallows in Wisconsin did typically nest in barns but now that so many barns have fallen into disrepair and even fallen down, one pair decided to nest in one of the top corners of this farmhouse's porch.

When I first discovered them, two of the chicks were up and looking around. By the time I got the camera...

They were down and peering with their big shiny insect hunting eyes from behind bits of feather and fluff.
I'd love a look at their whiskers--perhaps tomorrow.


Karen Anne said...

Some sort of birds build nests up in the top of one of the washing bays in a do it yourself car wash near where I live. I have been assuming them were swallows, but haven't taken a good look.

The nests seem to be up in a cranny between the inner horizontal roof and "the attic" so to speak, so I haven't actually seen the nest(s).

It isn't a very busy car wash, but I would have though it would be too busy for them. Apparently not, since this is the second year I've seen them.

I'm happy to say the elderly owners don't seem to mind the birds being there.

Donegal Browne said...

Watch for the response on the main page.