Zorro: Part II – What He Knows

What Zorro Knows

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 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. Zorro’s reaction times are much faster than ours; this greatly alters 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 in Zorro’s world.

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 gave him. 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 was brought to live with humans. We can’t really know the extent of the changes this made in his life.

Zorro had to learn how to forage for himself. When we met, I was the enemy. He had to learn to know me. 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. 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 his are double-cells; some are graced with intensifying oil droplets. He has two focal points in each eye and a receptor-rich strip called the infula. 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. He learned to recognize a vulture at just a glance: nothing to worry about. An eagle, nearly the same size, elicits acute attention.

3. He has 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 my voice. He learned 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. 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 that 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. His sharp talons and strong feet are his primary weapons. He will automatically grab anything approaching at chest height, as a defense. He has toes with a ratchet mechanism that lets him lock on. He was born knowing how to grab and make killing motions.

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 and the squirrel turned in the bird’s grip and bit a toe off. Zorro lost a rat by grabbing it awkwardly. The next one was not so lucky.

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 frequent hunts. After being out on his own for two weeks, he was a complete athlete. 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.

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 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 came back, he practically jumped into my arms. He immediately fell asleep in his mews, head tucked into his scapular feathers. But happily went back next day.

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.

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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