Notes on Surviving in the Wild

In recent years, an observer I trust has reported some interesting wrinkles on the behavior of wild raptors – specifically, a family of Red-tails, a family of American Kestrels, and a family of Cooper’s Hawks, all in the fields and woods around Davis, California.

Red-tails are common raptors throughout the country, familiar to all of us. These had a nest in a median between two major highways near Sacramento. It was not a large area, and it seemed obvious that it was dangerous – surely young fledglings would get hit on the roads – a fate not uncommon to naive or distracted raptors. But surprisingly, the three chicks in the nest fledged safely and began their after-nest schooling. They would flap and flap, jump up and down, fly short distances and crash land. The parents brought dead prey close by and dropped it for the youngsters to find. Later, the prey was alive and the young hunters had to learn to kill it. This was all as expected. What wasn’t nearly as familiar was the solicitous behavior of the parent birds when danger was near. As the sun went down and the scary Owl Hour set in, they called to the youngsters and seemed to encourage them to seek safety in dense cover. Great Horned Owls are among the most ferocious predators young hawks face. They are silent and surprisingly fast – well named “The Tigers of the Forest.” In full light, the parent birds were also vigilant – they quickly decided that the human who kept coming to their area and hanging around was bad! They would fly up, calling and urging the young hawks to move away.

Red-tailed Hawk Hatchling

Red-tailed Hawk Hatchling

As the weeks went by, the youngsters began hunting on their own, but at the least sign of an intruder, that is, when the observers got too close, for example, one or both parents would appear. Finally, one of the young hawks disappeared, and the observers were sad, thinking she – probably female since she was larger than her siblings – might have gotten killed. She was very dark, a relatively rare color morph in Red-tails, and quite beautiful and energetic. What had happened to her?

A few days later, to our relief, she reappeared, and before the old birds could intervene, eagerly accepted the offering of a road-killed jackrabbit tossed into the field. It seemed that the hawklets were slowly getting ready to disperse. Young Red-tails usually take off around 8 weeks or so after hatching. They have been reported as traveling North out of California, even as far as Idaho. Some seem to come back in a year or two at breeding season. The dispersal represents the critical danger period in young raptors’ lives: no longer protected and fed by the parents, they must cope on their own. A very large percentage don’t make it through the first year.

The American Kestrel family – Kestrels are the smallest falcons in the US – a year ago raised its five chicks in one of the many kestrel nest boxes around Davis. All seemingly healthy and inquisitive. When the first three bopped out of the boxes, they were unable to fly well and hopped around after insects on the ground or climbed, literally, back up into the box, like little woodpeckers. This is danger time. Crows, jays, other raptors, foxes, coyotes, cats – every other predator around, hearing the cries of young kestrels, zooms into action. The mother of these youngsters, however, was an Amazon. She fiercely attacked anything that came at her babies, once even riding a crow, latching onto his back and digging in. He was much larger than she, but she rode him out of the area. A falconer, watching her exhausting routine, caught two of the babies and took them home for some free meals. They were charming little guests, flying onto his head or up onto the ceiling fan, calling out, and clearly enjoying their free meals. In two days, seeing that they were now flying competently, he returned them. The parent birds came up to them immediately and there was a joyous reunion. The smallest and probably the youngest of the five babies was a little male, which the falconer now took in for treats. He was friendly and sweet and ate up a storm. In two days, he too was ready for sustained flight, so the falconer let him ride on his hand as he drove back to the field where the nest box hung. Before they reached the box site, the little male began to cry “killy killy,” and look out the car window. There were answering cries, and when the little creature flew out of the car and into the field, his siblings and a parent surrounded him, calling out and flying in circles. You could invent wonderful dialogue for this scene, if you were inclined to conflate human and avian feelings, and I give you my permission to do so and have fun. Interestingly enough, a year later, the same nestbox produced another large family. They are still together, siblings and parents, more than 8 weeks after hatching! (These little guys fledge in about 3 – 4 weeks.) We don’t think of raptors, generally, as warm and connected family groups, but we are surely wrong. For one thing, even huge eagles are tender with their young, and protective. They have been photographed shredding prey into tiny meat slivers for new hatchlings, and curling their lethal talons away from the youngsters to keep from injuring them.

This little American Kestrel is almost ready for fledging.

This little American Kestrel is almost ready for fledging.

Many years ago, Darwin pointed out that most vertebrates share a great deal of physiology, including the nerve networks. He wrote a book about it – The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. You may hear: “They don’t feel the way we do,” but feel they do, most definitely. The way we do? Probably it’s all in the same ballpark. Love, fear, curiosity, fury, joy. Communicated in whatever levels and languages are appropriate to the species.

My third raptor story features a young Cooper’s Hawk, one of those traditional forest hunters who have recently moved into towns and cities to fly down pigeons and snack at bird feeders. He was also one of five siblings, hatched and raised in a suburban back yard. A falconer caught the littlest one, a small male, and kept him for about ten days, feeding him and considering working with him as a hunting partner for awhile. But after a bit, he got to feeling guilty – he’s the keen observer of the Red-tail and Kestrel families, and here was a healthy young bird that surely needed to be with its parents not just to learn hunting refinements, which a falconer can help with, but the serious lesson of CAUTION. He took the little boy back to the yard where he’d trapped him.

Released – unhooded and unjessed – the youngster flew into the tree where he’d been seen often before his capture, a favorite perch. For ten minutes, he looked all around, anxiously – and called. After another ten minutes, the falconer was regretting having released this bird to a lonely spot – the others had, he thought, taken off. When suddenly, the parents both appeared, followed by another of the young. There was a rapturous reunion!

Just-hatched Cooper's Hawklets. Note the "egg tooth," which disappears in just a couple of days.

Just-hatched Cooper’s Hawklets. Note the “egg tooth,” which disappears in just a couple of days.

The lesson here is that though we humans believe we are better at most things than our wild neighbors, in truth wild parents are best after all. Finding food and killing it is only the beginning of successfully growing up among raptors. The other really critical area is avoiding predators. Even with parental care, 60 to 75 percent of young raptors die the first year for one reason or another (many of human origin), and the sad truth is that even falconry birds not taken from the wild as juveniles but raised by people, are often, without parental care, the victims of other predators – including other raptors – when they are flying.

So – though the overall odds do not seem good to us, chances are that Mother and Father Nature still do the best job of successfully raising young raptors!

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