Monday, December 31, 2007

A Pear Eating Hawk in Brooklyn?

Tip checks out the rainy New York City skyline. Her sister Edge decided that sleeping was preferable.
A few days ago, a question came in from Brooklyn via the comments section:

There is a window feeder as well as a suet feeder on the fire escape of my Brooklyn apartment. The birds attracted by this setup are primarily sparrows, house finches and Quaker parrots--and recently hawks.

I've never seen the hawks catch anything but last week there was a surprising incident. Looking out the window, I saw a large red-tail sitting on the railing intently examining the bird feeders. Then the hawk jumped down to the fire escape and grabbed a ripe pear that had fallen off the top of the suet. It then flew off with its prize. Could this be a vegan hawk?

Prior to this incident, I always thought that hawks were exclusively meat eaters.

Dear Brooklyn,

You're not the only one who thinks that hawks are exclusively meat eaters. Everyone else thinks so as well. (Though never say never, just because no one has ever seen it doesn't necessarily mean it never ever happens, at least from the true science point of view.)

By any chance, was there suet on the pear?

A winter or so back, there was an immature Red-tail in Central Park that was extremely partial to suet. Did you notice if the hawk was an adult or immature?

By the way, in which neighborhood in Brooklyn did you see the hawk?


Brooklyn answered :

The pear was mushy and most likely had only the "essence" of suet on it.

Since it's my understanding that hawks don't have a very good sense of smell, that can't be the attraction.

Could it have been so hungry that it would consider eating an over-ripened pear? I didn't get a very good look at the hawk but it was large and stocky in appearance. It seemed to be a Red-tail, but now I can't specifically recall the red tail or dark eyes indicative of an adult.

It's interesting to note that although I was only a few feet away on the other side of the window, the hawk didn't seem especially concerned by my presence. (There is another hawk--possibly a Cooper's--that flees at my slightest movement.)

In previous years, there would be a sighting of a large hawk only once or twice during the winter. Now it's every week. It appears that the only way to discourage the hawks is to stop filling up the feeders.

However, I was initially reluctant to stop feeding the birds because the green Monk parrots show up only in the winter and seem especially dependent on the feeders.

This is all taking place in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn which abuts the Narrows of lower New York harbor.

As a side note, there is a pigeon coop on the roof of an apartment building about a block away, but it's rare to see the owner flying his pigeons anymore. Is it possible that the hawks are turning this area into a no-fly zone for pigeons?

Dear Brooklyn,

I suppose it's possible that the pigeons won't go up because of a hawk they've spotted but I'm wondering if it wasn't the pigeon fancier who decided to turn the area into no-fly zone for pigeons for awhile in hopes that the local raptors might just take a hike without the temptation of squab every other day.

Unquestionably Monks, and other birds as well, in and near cities do depend heavily on feeders, sometimes for their only sustenance. Therefore I've come to the conclusion that available food and a natural predator is most likely preferable to no food with the possible presence of a predator anyway.

And it may not just be the feeders that are causing more sightings of big hawks your way. More and more raptors for whatever reason, whether they are being pressured into human sight by lack of habitat or they were hatched in urban settings and are therefore more habituated to humans, there are just far more raptors around to be seen.

As to a hawks sense of smell, science has often been quite wrong about particular avian species sense of smell so I wouldn't discount completely "essence of suet" being an attractor on the pear. Does squishy pear resemble suet enough to fool a hawk into carrying it away? Currently unanswerable so then what?

Red-tails are adaptable but I have to admit pear snacks seem a bit of a stretch when compared to our current knowledge.

But having said that, pigeons are considered herbivores who's diet in the wild consists of grains and greens. But what New Yorker hasn't seen city pigeons making short work of a stray hot dog on the sidewalk? If I'd only heard about it and not seen it, I'd have wondered if they even had the digestive equipment to deal with meat.

Now it's true that pigeons are "learned eaters". They have to watch other pigeons or perhaps I can't say, just other birds eat in order to know how to do it themselves. It isn't innate.

Some years ago we became the proud foster parents of Tip and Edge, a pair of pigeon sisters. They were orphaned at a few days old and we hand fed them to weaning age, then realized we didn't have a eating role model on hand. It was winter so we bundled them up in a shoe box, little heads sticking out and placed them on the terrace where they'd have a chance of watching their wild compatriots eating. This was fine for a little while. At least until Tip struggled out of her wrappings, hopped out of the shoebox, hot footed it to the terrace door and stood there looking up until we retrieved both of them back into the house.

Tip and Edge did learn to eat seed from watching out the windows. They also, having helped themselves to some bread and butter earlier, developed a real taste for butter that led them to working in tandem to get the lid off the butter dish when the humans were otherwise engaged in cage cleaning.

They had never shown the slightest interest in hot dogs. In fact they were offered hot dog as an experiment once and turned their beaks up at it. Then one day when Tip and Edge were perhaps nine months old, someone, to prove a point that pigeons would eat anything even when not desperate for food, decided to give them a link sausage. I said go ahead, 99.9% sure they wouldn't touch it. Well, the sausage came within reach and they leapt upon it like little white feathered vampires and devoured it in seconds. Then went back to looking the perfect herbivores pecking away at their Haagen dove mix.

I remember being quite taken aback and thinking, "Wow. That was really weird!" And even weirder still, they have never deigned to touch a speck of meat of any kind since.

Therefore who am I to say that a Red-tail, particularly a young one, might not just decide to to try eating a squishy pear one winter's day?

Though I must say, that would make quite the startling photograph now wouldn't it?

Donegal Browne

Seasons Greetings from Blaze the Bunny, and Alex and Washoe Link, Updated

Blaze the Bunny would send Season's Greetings except he's really quite busy chomping on birdseed. His two cohorts had been there as well, but not having the long standing relationship that Blaze does with the blog, they fled. Fear of publicity and all.
And for those who had trouble with yesterday's link, Karen Anne sent in a replacement.
Thank you, K. A. !

Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Hawk Bench plus The New York Times includes Alex and Washoe

My daughter Samantha, her friend Ryan Patrone, and Hawk Watcher Ludie Stern, went to Central Park today in search of birds with Red-tails.

They discovered a number of Blue Jays,

numerous Blue-bar Pigeons,
and even an intermittently blue sky above 927 Fifth Avenue, a rarity these days.
And to their complete surprise they discovered that the Model Boat Pond which had been flush with Mallards just two days ago, had been drained for it's yearly repair and cleaning. Not to fear, the Mallards had just relocated to The Lake across the road but it was still a little startling to the humans unused to the artificiality of Central Park's bodies of water.

In case things seemed too strange, there was the comfort that the pigeon flock was still alive, well, and circling as usual

There was the nest perched atop the cradle, perched atop the cornice, and waiting for a couple of birds with Red-tails to set up housekeeping. Resident Hawk Bench photographer Rik Davis, explained that Lola had just left a perch over on the Oreo, but currently was nowhere in sight.
Now isn't that typical?

Samantha took off to check possible perches.

Ryan manned the Swarovski Scope, Ludie looked for a certain pair to photograph, but all to no avail. Not today any way. If it were all that easy, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun when they did appear.
But as Scarlett O'Hara so aptly says, "Tomorrow is another day."

Courtesy of The Alex Foundation

Courtesy of Central Washington University
And a beautifully written piece by Charles Seibert, well worth reading, concerning the passing of Alex the African Grey Parrot and Washoe, the Chimpanzee, in their traditional end of the year New York Times Magazine, The Lives They Lived.

Alex b. 1976
Washoe b. circa 1965

Published: December 30, 2007

"THERE IS, IN THE END, no telling what tales they had to tell, the two greatest nonhuman linguists of our day: Washoe, the sign-language-wielding chimpanzee with an intense footwear fetish; and Alex, the wildly outspoken parrot, an African gray known to regularly order about his human researchers and to purposely give them the wrong answers to their questions just to alleviate his boredom. After all, we only ever gave them our own words to work with."

(updated URL, that works thanks to Karen Anne)
I noted that the second sentence of the introduction in The Lives They Lived said, "On the last Sunday of each year, we fill these pages with stories of all kinds of people who have died during the last 12 months."
What's that they said,"...with stories of all kinds of people"? Just as a young child who begins to speak becomes more of a person to us, so too these intra-species talkers became, well no, not human exactly, they aren't Homo sapiens, but rather "people", people of another species, by learning our language. And in a gentle obscure way The York Times respected them enough to include them and say, that they were "people" too.

Donegal Browne

Friday, December 28, 2007

More Snow plus Swans

Yes, yet another layer of fresh white fluffy snow. And during the process, I've had several reports of Red-tail hawks arriving in backyards with feeders who's owners hadn't seen them before.

The question pops up as to whether this is a new behavior? Hard to tell. The variable of course is that perhaps the humans had never paid attention to those likely raptor hunting perching branches until I asked for reports. Therefore the Red-tails may have been hunting those particular feeders all along and it isn't a new behavior at all.

Note that the wooden feeder up right has developed a furry "roof". These squirrels raid the feeders no matter the weather. No semi-concious days spent snuggled into their nests for these guys.

And from William Walters, our NYTimes link finder--

NEW YORK REGION December 28, 2007

The mute swan is a target of a campaign in Connecticut to reduce its numbers in the state’s delicate coastline habitats.
Donegal Browne

Sam Does Central Park for Me in the Rain

As I haven't been around for awhile, and I usually make a point of visiting the park on Christmas Day just to make sure all is in order, my daughter Sam went out to take a look around for me.
Looking at the photographs from such a gray day, I get the feeling of dormancy even more than usual from the park this winter.
No hawks in residence today Everything is just waiting a few more weeks before shaking off the slumber and getting the juices going.
Not quite everything. As usual there aren't enough Mallard Hens to go around and this Mallard is making sure the others don't get close to his mate. He got her early and he's keeping her.
Off they go to a different and more private part of the Model Boat Pond.
Not a soul at the Hawk Bench. It's early and wet.

At first I thought, "Oh no! The antenna is missing from the Oreo Building." But no it's there and before too very long, Lola will be waiting for Pale Male to bring those tasty courting gifts.

Speaking of Lola's favorite tasty courting gift, here's one now. He'd better watch out though he may be close enough to the hawk nest to be in the safety zone.

And how many hours have we all sat and looked at this view? There's Woody on the left, 927 center, Fisher to the right and even farther right, the Linda building.

As there are no hens to harass, the boys float over for a snack check.

A full view of all the little rails on Linda, and not a Red-tail in sight.

Now here's a change and a good one. At least with the sign we won't have to argue with the Mallard molesters about their motored boats being illegal on the Pond. Yes, as you see the real name of the Model Boat Pond is the Conservatory Water. The only problem is, they never got around to building the Conservatory though they did get around to floating model boats.

Who can resist Bow Bridge, even in the rain. Though today with the droplets pattering on the Lake making a mirage of its reflection, who can resist it, especially in the rain.
One of my favorite trees, there is something so animated about it.
Aha! It's one of the tiny hunters and he's looking extremely serious. What does the White-throated Sparrow, leg slightly lifted and ready to go, see?

Whatever it is, he knows dormancy doesn't get a bird anywhere, and rushes over and seizes the day and the prey. Soon Pale Male and Lola will be doing the same.
Donegal Browne

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

John Blakeman on Pronunciation

Buteo jamaicensis, female, aka Lola
John Blakeman, the prairie and hawk expert in Ohio, not only contributes his expertise to the hawk blogs of New York City, but has been a wonderful biological educator in other contexts for many years as well. Therefore upon reading yesterday's post, he knew there was yet another bugaboo for people beginning their adventure into science. Here's what he had to say--


The biologically unskilled or untrained are legitimately perturbed with two biological conventions. The first is, taxonomic nomenclature, which you have accurately listed for the Red-tailed Hawk.

But the second, often more frustrating, even for those who deal with them, are the accepted pronunciations of the taxa.

As a biological educator, I always try to spell out the pronunciations of the Latin taxa that I present, when dealing with popular audiences.

Here are the pronunciations for the taxa of the Red-tailed Hawk:

Kingdom Animalia ("ann-eh-MALE-ee-ah")

Phylum Chordata ("cor-DAHT-ah")

Class Aves ("AH-veez")

Order Falconiformes ("fal-CON-eh-FORM-eez")

Family Accipitridae ("ack-SIP-eh-trid-ee")

Genus Buteo ("BEUT-ee-oh")

Species Buteo jamaicensis ("BEUT-ee-oh jamma-eh-SEN-siss")

Notice that the genus and specific epithet (the second species name) are always italicized, as you properly did.


John A. Blakeman
Many thanks, John
Donegal Browne

AND Season's Greetings Binomial Nomenclature

As blog reader Mark Adams pointed out, a couple of this past year's featured creatures had been left out of the first greeting, so allow me to add Season's Greetings also from Mr. Goldfinch...

...and the Milton Krider's Red-tail, Whistle.

And now with that oversight taken care of, my apologies, let's turn our thoughts to Taxonomy!

No, no, don't cringe, it really doesn't take all that much courage. Once you get the hang of it, it's like a grand puzzle waiting to be solved.

Don't be put off by what might be possibly strange terms to a few of you. When it comes down to it they are a form of short hand so one doesn't have to use a dozen words when the scientific shorthand will do it in one word.

We'll now digress to an example. How about diurnal? A word most of you know, yes? A diurnal creature is awake for the most part during the day and daytime is when it conducts most of it's business for living, feeding itself, mating, and raising young. See all those words? One would have to keep qualifying generalizations for ages to take in all the exceptions without the word diurnal. Pigeons tend take a nap every afternoon. They aren't awake all day. Actually most all birds tend their young in some manner at night. You catch the drift. Therefore the word diurnal deals with all that in one fell swoop. Now back to our our regularly scheduled program concerning taxonomy. For the beginners, get past the first sentence and you'll be fine.

It occurred to me that taxonomy, the scientific classification using binomial nomenclature first used in Linnaean Taxonomy (scientists are arguing about what exactly to call the whole thing that's why I had to put all that in), a system of scientific classification for living organisms, dreamed up originally by the Swedish botanist, zoologist, and all round butterfly net carrying naturalist Carl Linnaeus. No bland fellow, this guy, he had the entrance into town by he and his students from nature walks, accompanied by trumpets and kettle drums.

And just which creature shall we pick to classify? Red-tailed Hawks of course.

Kingdom: Animalia

If it's not a plant, it's in Animalia. Not tough.

Phylum: Chordata

If it has at some time in it's life cycle, a notochord, a hollow dorsal nerve chord, pharyngeal slits, (another argument, some scientists say it should read, pharyngeal pouches), an endostyle, and a post-anal tail.

The sub-phylum would be vertebrata. Birds have a nerve imbued spine, right?

Class: Aves If it's a bird.

What's a bird? A bipedal, warm blooded animal that lays eggs. No, flying isn't part of it. Otherwise what would we do with all the non-flighted birds? And bipedal gets rid of those pesky Australian fur wearing egg layers.

So far it couldn't be simpler and if you pick a bird to classify in future, you've already got the first three categories.

Order: Falconiformes

Diurnal birds of prey. (Aren't you glad we didn't have to use all those clarifications? Diurnal works rather nicely.) Classification of raptors is difficult and as the ornithologists are still battling it out on the matter we're going to leave it at that.
(Just like evolving nature, science is always in flux.)

Family: Accipitridae
One of the two major families within the order Falconiformes. Remember those diurnal birds of prey? The Accipitridae generally kill with their feet.

The second major family is the Falconidae, who kill with their beaks and have a special "tooth" on the beak for the purpose.

Genus: Buteo
Buteo is a genus of middle sized wide-ranging raptors with a thick well muscled body and broad wings.

Species: Buteo jamaicensis
A male Red-tail can weigh from a pound and a half to nearly three pounds and be from 18 to 22 inches long. A female weighs in at from two pounds to four and a half pounds. and are 20 to 26 inches. (Don't you just hate that overlap? It makes it so tough to sex them at times.) As is obvious from the previous, Red-tailed Hawks are sexually dimorphic with the female topping the male by about 25%. Wingspan is from 43 is 57 inches.

There are at least 14 officially recognized sub-species.

Color variations are called morphs. And although there are variations in color, hue, and markings depending on sub-species and range, certain traits tend to be consistent. The underbelly is lighter than the back. There are perpendicular markings mid-anterior, the belly band, darker than the belly itself. The feet, legs, and cere are always yellow. The "red-tail" when viewed from above is almost always a brick red other than in the Krideri at which time it's more Dreamsicle colored or more rarely very nearly white except in immatures.

Young hawks have a pale gray brown tail with darker lateral bands. Birds of 3 to 4 years will have yellow to brownish yellow irises.
They have the typical curved pointed raptor bill and relatively large, strong, and lethal feet.

So find another creature and classify it. It's amazing all the fascinating things you'll run across.
Donegal Browne

Monday, December 24, 2007
















(For the most recent posts, click on Palemaleirregulars at the top of the page.)

Saturday, December 22, 2007