Quick, Make Like a Statue!

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (1) w sigI’ve got an interesting series of photos to show you today, sort of a follow up to my recent post titled The Hunter and the Hunted. The other day I glanced out the kitchen window and saw a red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis) frozen in place on the side of the suet cylinder.  In the classic nuthatch pose, facing downward, he wasn’t moving a single muscle.

That simple sign told me there was a winged predator in the yard; sure enough, it only took a few seconds to find a mature Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in the big silver maple tree. The hawk’s view of the nuthatch was probably blocked because he was on the back side of the suet. But the little guy wasn’t taking any chances, and continued to “make like a statue” even after the hawk flew across the yard to perch on the fence.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (7) w sig

Even from his new location, the hawk couldn’t see the nuthatch. You may notice that this isn’t the same immature hawk that was here the other day. This one is an adult, as indicated by his red eyes and more solidly-colored breast plumage.

series - red-breasted nuthatch and cooper's hawk
A cypress that offers shelter to small birds

After about 45 seconds on the fence, the hawk dropped down behind the large cypress shrub, and the nuthatch still didn’t move. As I was enjoying the drama of this scene, I was also glad to have a nuthatch who wasn’t moving so I might have a chance to get better photos of him, though I was still hampered by the double-paned window.

The hawk remained behind the cypress for at least 15 minutes. I’ve seen several hawks drop down behind there and stay for a good amount of time, possibly feasting on the birds who like to shelter inside. When the snow melts a bit, I’ll have to check to see if there are piles of house sparrow feathers back there.

But anyway, when the hawk had been out of sight for about four minutes, the nuthatch began to move verrrry slowly.  First he turned around and waited for a couple more minutes.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (6) w sig

He looked to the left.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (5) w sig

Then he looked to the right.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (4) w sig

Continuing to be exceedingly cautious, he slowly creeped up and peeked up over the top of the suet.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (3) w sig

Finally he felt the coast was clear, and took the opportunity to fly to the relative safety of the big cedar tree.

series - red-breasted nuthatch hiding from cooper's hawk (2) w sig

I don’t know if the Coop would have even bothered with a meal as tiny as a red-breasted nuthatch, but I don’t blame the little one for putting on his cloak of invisibility for a few minutes, just in case.

Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Yesterday morning we woke up to find the yard covered with a light dusting of snow, our first real snow of this season. And it was very cold too, giving us our first taste of the bitterness that often comes with a Michigan winter. We were taking it easy, curled up in blankets, drinking tea and watching a documentary about JFK. As usual, I glanced out the window occasionally to watch the birds in the yard. My favorite birds, the Cedar Waxwings, had just arrived to partake of some red berries on a shrub just outside the window. They come in small flocks a couple times every fall until they finish off all the fruit. Here are a couple pictures I’d taken of them a few days earlier (through the window, so not the greatest quality photos):

Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard
Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in our yard

Cedar Waxwing with red berry in open mouth - a bit blurry (800x574) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - good one (800x641) Cedar Waxwing with red berry in beak - head on view (640x511)

Owl and titmouse (640x582)
See the Tufted Titmouse behind him?

I had a wonderful time watching them feast that day. But things were different yesterday. After noting their arrival, I’d turned my attention back to the documentary on tv. A few minutes later I realized that I was distracted by a lot of chattering in the trees. I saw some chickadees and titmice flitting around and shouting alarm calls. We muted the tv to listen to them, and immediately saw an Eastern Screech-owl sitting on a branch about 8 feet outside our window, looking right at us!

It’s not often we get to see owls in daytime, so we were both very excited. But as I crept closer to the window I noticed something hanging below the owl. I knew it had to be a bird, and I assumed it was one of the chickadees or titmice. But no, it was a Cedar Waxwing, still fluttering its wings as it died in the clutches of the owl’s talons.

screech-owl with cedar waxwing prey (571x800) w sig

I’m squeamish about seeing animals die–even when I know it’s the way of nature–so I looked away for a half minute until the waxwing stopped moving. Then I was able to be awed at the beauty of the owl, and amazed that he’d caught a bird as large as this one. He sat there for about ten minutes and then flew off into the woods with his catch. I imagine that will keep him satisfied for a good long while.

I’ve been told that the chickadee early warning system is a good way to find an owl, and now I’ve seen it for myself. Often if the little birds spot an owl roosting in a tree they’ll raise a ruckus, either in an attempt to chase it away or just to warn everyone. It seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? You’d think a little bird would just want to take off and get far away from a predator like that, but these little guys were getting in his face and really giving him a hard time.

It’s always preferable to see owls in the wild if possible, but at two recent Audubon events I’ve had a chance to see some captive owls up close, and they are amazing and beautiful birds. All of these owls have some sort of injury or other problem that makes it impossible for them to survive in the wild, so they are permanent residents at nature centers where they’re used for educational programs (like coming to Audubon meetings). Here’s Circe, a Great Horned Owl that lives at the Howell Nature Center:

Circie the Great Horned Owl from Howell Nature Center (4) (800x762) w sig
Circe is more than twenty years old, can you believe that? And here’s a Short-eared Owl whose name I’ve forgotten, also from the Howell Nature Center:

Short-eared Owl (9) (800x642) w sig

A Barred Owl from the Leslie Nature Center:

Barred Owl from Leslie Nature Center - Copy (640x480)

Talons on a Barred Owl
The business end of a Barred Owl — talons to be respected

You may have seen Barred Owls in the news lately in connection with the plight of the threatened Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. Environmentalists have waged a controversial fight to save the Spotted Owl’s territory from loggers for many years, only to have it now face a threat from the larger and more aggressive Barred Owls, which have expanded into the same territories. The government now plans to kill thousands of Barred Owls to save the Spotted Owls. Hmm, when do we decide it’s “worth it” to kill one species to save another? Some people believe we should make every effort to prevent every single species from going extinct, while others think we should let nature take its course. I find myself always coming down on the side of saving a species, especially if human activities are the cause of its troubles. But in a case like this when it’s not entirely clear yet how and why the two owl species are interacting, I have more trouble siding with those who want to start shooting Barred Owls. But clearly these are ethical muddy waters.

All I know is that the idea of any species being eradicated from the Earth because of human activity makes me deeply sad in a way that’s hard to express. Sure, most of us will never see a Northern Spotted Owl or a Barred Owl anyway, but does that mean it’s ok for either of them to disappear forever? I hope not.