Zorro: Part II – What He Does, What He Knows

What Zorro Does Now That He’s Free

Zorro grown up

Zorro grown up

There is a vast, bright, rich world where Zorro lives – an explosive world of sight and action and swift, acute comprehension. It is ever out of my reach. But here are some things I know about him from observation, through things we share as vertebrates and as companions, and through knowledge scientists have gained through technology. Zorro, of course, knows things about me, too.

Zorro, the Red-tailed Hawk, was released in mid-March 2017, in a bright beautiful meadow with a knoll of oaks where a breeze always blows, with a thread of rabbit paths, gopher holes, with the rattle of woodpeckers in the surrounding woods, and frogs in the spring tucked into the blackberry bushes. We had hunted in that meadow two months before I cut off his anklets and said Good-bye. Of course, with a young bird in rehab, you don’t just say, “God bless, have a good life.” You continue to support him with food (in diminishing amounts) and you keep an eye on his progress. Zorro had not gone through a molt, and since his West Nile Virus had manifested itself in feather destruction, he needed extra monitoring.

So every day at the same time, I went to the head of the meadow, where there’s a gate, and whistled. The first day, he practically knocked me over – whacking my head, as if to say, “Where were you!!” He fell on the half a quail I’d brought and ate it about four feet in front of me. I made no effort (and haven’t since I released him) to call him to the hand. For a time, this was our routine, though he never again touched me. He came every day and accepted my offering of a half a quail. I’d toss it in the grass and he’d eat quickly right in front of me. But after two weeks, he began grabbing the food and flying into a large live oak to consume it.

And then he disappeared. I worried – so many predators, so little experience for Zorro. I went daily, early and late, and whistled and called. No Zorro.

I’d about given up, when one day, the owner of the meadow, who has a metal shop near-by, called and said, “Your boy is here. In a tree over the shop, yelling.” I hurried over. Naturally Zorro was gone by then. As I drove back to the head of the meadow, a shadow passed over the car. Zorro was waiting for me on what I call Pole #1 – a telephone pole near the meadow gate. He had been gone five days.

He was around without a break for a month. I would go early morning or late afternoon and he would meet me. He was snatching his tidbit from the ground and zooming away. Once again he disappeared for several days, and then returned, this time finding me as I was walking around the spring. At the end of another absence, he found me sitting in the woods under a huge oak. So it’s plain that he can find me if he wants me. His flight skills have improved enormously. He began doing wing-overs and dives for his food. By June, he was catching the tidbits in midair. He was also clearly supporting himself. He was in beautiful shape. He was looking a bit scruffy, since he was molting, but I checked him out through binoculars, and his new feathers seemed fine.

In July, he was known to all the neighbors, who’d report seeing him at a distance. “Probably your bird,” they would say. He’d often hang out at my neighbor’s horse barn, where apparently he bathed in the stallion’s water trough, and he was spotted catching something in the paddock. Always mice near horse barns! He also was pretty faithful to our trysts. A photographer friend visited and I think Zorro shadowed us, but he didn’t really show himself. A friend from New York came for a week, and he had no problem with her. I would approach and stand under his Pole #1 and he didn’t fly away or look nervous. She stood back at a distance at first, but by the end of the week, she could stand next to me and he’d land over us. As with any of us, he has his druthers.

Between July and October, as I am writing this, he went off on a ramble four times. The longest was for ten days in September, and that time I was sure in my heart that he had gone. I knew he’d been expanding his familiar territories – areas where he learned the prey, the safe trees, water, and so on. But there was and is always the possibility that he will leave permanently. There is a female locally who uses the meadow not frequently but enough so she probably has claimed it. She has shadowed him several times to my knowledge, but he has so far kept his claim, too. I’ve been hoping they’d pair up. Red-tails often do sustain their connections throughout the year. But it doesn’t seem to be happening. Maybe I should say, “not yet.”

In September, he showed up when my neighbor brought friends to the meadow to pick blackberries, and when he rode one of his horses, Zorro would sit in a nearby tree and watch. When I was asked if he’d fly down for food from me in front of an audience, I was willing to give it a try. But he didn’t show up (and I was glad – I don’t want him to associate people in general with food and friendliness). So far only Stephanie, my New York friend, has ever seen his aerobatics, though he likes my neighbor and is not wary of him.

By now he not only knows my car by sight and sound, he recognizes me when I am in a strange car. He has stared right at me through the windshield and then flown to his tree.

In November, Red-tails and most other large hawks begin to pair up or renew old bonds preparatory to mating displays, building or refurbishing a nest, and raising a family. As I wait to find out what that will bring Zorro, I’m seeing interesting behavior patterns, patterns whose intent I can only guess at. Yesterday, October 8, I went to the gate with “hors d’oeuvres” and a Red-tail broke away from the meeting tree and flew, crying, down the road. I whistled, thinking it was Zorro, and set off down the meadow after him, wondering what was going on. But then to my right, I heard another bird crying – keeerr keeer – Red-tail. Was it Zorro? Was he hurt? I walked toward the sound and then I saw him, perfectly fine, on a small pine. He moved a couple of trees closer to me, not right over my head, but looking at the other bird. As I watched, he hacked up a pellet. Then he went into serious communication mode. How I longed to know what they were saying, those two. He’d cry twice and the other bird would answer. In owls, the females, significantly larger than the males as is true also of Red-tails and most raptors, have a much higher pitched cry than the males. Zorro’s voice was the lower of these two, so perhaps his companion is the Sky Queen after all or a wandering female. Perhaps I’d interrupted a prom-night duet. Or a game of chief of the mountain. I don’t know. They kept up the calling – she was now on a dead pine about an eighth of a mile down the meadow, and Zorro flew to his Pole #2. Did my presence give him confidence? I don’t know. I stood under the pole and watched and listened for about 15 minutes, and then put out the quail bit in sight of his perch and went home. It was getting dark.

This morning, October 9, is my one-year anniversary with Zorro. I picked him up exactly a year ago at the California Foundation for Birds of Prey, and we began our great adventure. At about a half-hour past dawn, I went back to the meeting tree. He was waiting for me as usual. I tossed his tidbit and he flipped a wing-over and snatched it. I went down into the meadow where I’d left yesterday’s half quail, and it was there, so the prospect of food hadn’t interrupted his tete-a tete with the other bird. Of whom there was now neither sight nor sound.

Next Report: What happens to Zorro in his first mating season of his wild life?

What Zorro Knows

People ask me what hawks know: Are they conscious? Do they learn? What is instinct? These are very difficult questions, since what goes on in another creature’s head is always a mystery, more so if you do not share a language. (Think of trying to figure out why a human baby is crying.) Scientists can now rig up a critter with devices that show brain activity and correlate that with simultaneous actions, so we know more than we ever have. But much is left to what we can put together using our observations and our daily familiarity with individuals we are connected to and whom we study. And who, incidentally, also study us!

Zorro was born with the potential attributes of a gifted aerial hunter. That imperative defines him – he hasn’t a wide choice of vocations. Some of these attributes came fully developed; some developed with learning and practice. Some responses and actions are hormone driven: the urge to find a mate. Some require a lifetime of shaping: prey animals don’t want to die, and Zorro has to learn how to out-think and out-maneuver them well enough to survive. Zorro’s reaction times are much faster than ours and his visual acuity is about ten times greater. These attributes greatly alter the way the world looks and feels. Yet, as Darwin pointed out more than 100 years ago, all vertebrates share basic biology, including brain/nerve structures – that is, cognition and emotion. Different? Of course. Lesser? Not so. Each animal has a brain (and senses) fine-tuned to allow him to thrive in a certain world. To be a jack-of-all-trades requires too many expensive tools for most wild things. And I think it’s safe to say that emotion drives us all: we humans aren’t of one mind about what emotion is, exactly, but we seem to agree that it is a conscious experience of attraction or repulsion of some strength. The desire to live, anticipation, fear, grief, rage, pleasure, love. Some still argue that other animals do not have consciousness, but that is surely a sophistry.

1. Zorro was born with the urge to chase and hunt. He knew he needed meat and refused fruits and vegetables. For the first month, he had to be fed tiny strips of flesh. His parents prepared his food and put it into his open mouth. Then larger hunks, then bone, then he was able to tear his own meat. At 30 days, he was still dependent, but he knew what he wanted and needed. At this point, he became ill and was brought to live with humans. We can’t really know the extent of the changes this made in his life. But he left his wild home just when his parents would have introduced him to living prey. They would catch and immobilize a gopher or mouse and drop it in the nest for Zorro and his siblings to squabble over, kill, and eat. This type of support would eventually get the youngsters out of the nest and foraging. Human surrogates try to replicate Mom and Dad’s routine, but it is far from easy.

Zorro had to learn how to forage for himself. When we met, I was the enemy. He was convinced I’d steal his food, even if I’d just offered it to him. He had to learn to know me. So many new things! But food is the language between human and hawk. Soon, he trusted me and I was able to hide meat or pull it on a string to begin to teach him the hunt. He learned things I wish he hadn’t. The sight of a plastic bag draws instant attention: food! He learned through his own perceptions; I taught by repeated actions (some inadvertent!).

2. Zorro was born with extraordinary eyesight. Eyes are one of the organs that show enormous differences between species and families in the animal kingdom. Hawks and humans share the dependency on vision. But the eyes of the two are vastly different (not as different as they eyes of humans vs sea creatures). Hawks have about a million photoreceptors per square millimeter (we have about 100,000), and four to five kinds of color receptors (we have three); some of Zorro’s are double-cells; some are graced with intensifying oil droplets. He has two focal points in each eye (we have one) and a receptor-rich strip we dub the infula (we don’t have this). He can focus on objects binocularly, as we do, but he can spot details of his prey from 8 to 10 times further away. He can simultaneously focus on the side, looking out for danger. He can follow complex action even as he dives on his prey.

He had to learn to use his amazing eyes effectively. He learned that the rabbit he’d watched vanish into a bush was still there: he learned to wait. He learned that his box in my car meant we were going hunting. After a week, he’d jump from my fist into it, ready to go. He learned to recognize a vulture at just a glance: nothing to worry about. An eagle, nearly the same size, elicits acute attention, as does another Red-tail. He will not take his eyes away from an eagle or hawk while it’s in sight, no matter how hungry he is.

3. He was born with keen hearing – not as keen as that of owls, but he hears extremely well.

He had to learn what sounds mean. In one day, he learned a whistle meant food. After two days, I couldn’t sneak up on his mews to observe him. He heard me, and met my eye at the peep-hole in the door. He learned to recognize the house door opening (it’s about 50 feet away from his mews). The sound of my voice. The sound of my car. He learned the local hawks’ voices. He sometimes calls out to a female Red-tail who co-owns the meadow he lives in. He’s silent around ravens and owls. Rustles in the underbrush can mean prey or predator. Which is it? Not even food draws his attention until he’s sure.

4. Zorro has a sense, which I can’t identify, of place. Students of raptors say that young raptor chicks “imprint” on the nest area. (See the article on imprinting elsewhere on this website). But that is not the whole story. From his closed box, he knew when we approached a familiar hunting spot. He’d begin moving about. Birds seem to have an awareness of the electromagnetic field of the earth. An electromagnetic map in the brain? I rehabbed a hawk who demonstrated this long ago. We don’t yet understand it.

He learned this by the time we’d been to our hunting field twice. What cues was he absorbing, responding to?

5. He has a sharp beak. He was born knowing how to use it to defend himself and tear food.

Some self-attention seemed to need practice. At the beginning he didn’t groom much. But he was soon wiping his beak after a meal and carefully preening his feathers. He can reach his oil gland at the base of his tail with his beak, turning his head 270 degrees. Life without hands is a challenge!

6. He was born knowing how to grab and make killing motions. His sharp talons and strong feet are his primary weapons. He will automatically grab anything approaching at chest height, as a defense (including my hand, if I forget! He grabbed my non-gloved hand twice, but he let go without crunching down. A blessing, as he has a grip with power. I wasn’t so lucky with any other bird I’ve worked with.). Like all perching birds, he has toes with a ratchet mechanism that lets him lock on.

Zorro in Red-tail juvenile feathering.

Zorro in Red-tail juvenile feathering. Compare this with the picture at the head of this article.

He had to learn to grab prey by the head so he wouldn’t be injured in the struggle. More than one falconry bird has caught a squirrel by the back end, only to have the squirrel turn in the bird’s grip and bite a toe off. Zorro lost a rat by grabbing it awkwardly. The next one did not escape.

7. He was born with the basics of flight, and the urge to fly. But his beginning flights were weak and awkward, the landings wobbly.

He had to learn flight refinements, which he couldn’t do in a mews or on a leash line or even with frequent hunts. After being out on his own for two weeks, he was a complete aerialist. He could take off straight up, fly loops, soar, nail landings. Zorro experiences flight to the max!

8. Caution is as important as food for survival. As a chick, Zorro was at first unaware of danger – his belly was empty! His parents not only fed, but protected him, fiercely.

He learned, probably from watching his parents, to be cautious. He looked around carefully whenever I took him out of his mews. A large bird cruising by could be dangerous! What were the dogs up to? When set free, he flew immediately into a dense tree. He did not come out even for food for many minutes. He quickly learned to evade the owls at night and the ravens and strange people by day. If he hadn’t, he would be dead by now. Incidentally, I’d hunted him in the field where I released him. He had on hunts flown to a nearby tree and then come back at a signal from me. He was wearing anklets, but the jesses were removed at each hunt. When I released him, there was only one difference that I was aware of: I’d cut off the anklets.

9. He knew nothing about traffic. Soon after release, he was seen on the edge of the road, eating something. Too close for safety!

Luckily he quickly learned about traffic. Now he flies up and away at the sound of an approaching car. He likes to fly along the road, perhaps because it is clear yet with trees close by if he needs to hide. He will veer away from the road sharply, though, when he hears a car coming.

10. Zorro didn’t know his territory well, before release, even though I hunted him there. I left him once, for several hours; when I went back, he practically jumped into my arms. He immediately fell asleep in his mews, head tucked into his scapular feathers. But he went back next day with no signs of trauma.

He has learned his territory. He has several territories – sometimes he leaves the meadow for days. So he must have, in each, places to sleep in safely, places from which he can wait for prey, particular trees where he goes to eat. He knows his territories so well, that once when he returned from a long absence, he came looking for me in the woods. I do not believe he has a continuous territory, that is constantly being enlarged. I believe (but cannot prove) that his territory consists of overlapping circles, which he can learn and monitor. I believe, with no good evidence, that he flies from one familiar spot – a tree or pole – to another a fair distance away.

A Note on Brains: “In the past few decades, scientists have learned that the basis of everything they thought they knew about bird brains—that they were largely comprised of the most primitive and instinctual of brain structures—was wrong. Fully 75 percent of the brains of parrots, hummingbirds, and thousands of other species of birds is actually made up of a sophisticated information-processing system that works much the same way as the locus of human higher-mindedness, the cerebral cortex.” —Lexi Krock (from Nova)

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