Predatory Neighbors with Quarrelsome Young

BEVERLY C. CROOK

April 06, 1991|By BEVERLY C. CROOK

Among the rewards of living in the woods of north BaltimoreCounty is having predatory neighbors with quarrelsome children. A close encounter with these particular neighbors a few springs ago was an experience that I'd like to repeat . . . I think.

It began in late March as I returned home after an absence of several weeks. A bird with an almost four-foot wingspan, carrying a mouse in its beak, swooped across the driveway in front of my car. I watched it fly to a tree and, rather delictely, offer the mouse to another bird perched there. Later I confirmed that these were red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus.)

The larger bird, the female, gulped down the mouse and the two of them flew to a platform of sticks wedged high in a red oak only 40 feet from my front door. Obviously the hawks had miscalculated. The deserted house plus a nearby stream with frogs, a favorite food, must have made the oak seem an ideal nesting site -- until those featherless creatures showed up, and there went the neighborhood.

Red-shoulders are secretive about their nests, so it seemed unlikely that they'd stick around. But perhaps it was too late to move, because by April 5, one was always on the nest (male and female take turns incubating the eggs). They ignored the human activity -- unless someone looked directly at the nest; then they'd take off immediately. And since a hawk's vision is roughly eight times better than a human's, they saw every peek. To prevent the eggs from getting cold, family and friends scuttled in an out of the house with heads bowed.

Until May 27, I hadn't ventured near the oak tree, but while both adults were away, I approached the nest. And there, looking down at me, were two big, fuzzy baby hawks! They were probably white, but the afternoon sun turned them golden as xTC they stood up tall in the nest to stare at the strange sight below.

Red-shoulders aren't rare, but neither are they as well understood as other buteos, and I resolved to use this unique opportunity to observe them at close range. Early the next morning, I sat on the front steps and focused my field glasses on the nest where the female was feeding a baby. She stopped and flew to a low branch directly across the yard; then turning to face me, gave a blood-curdling scream. If she'd spoken English, her message couldn't have been clearer. Thoroughly intimidated, I crept into the house.

The young hawks grew rapidly and their cries of kee-you! went on from dawn to dark. When an adult appeared with food, they turned up the volume and hopped up and down. Finally the inevitable happened: Both parents arrived at the nest at the same time, and with four great wings sweeping the air while the excited babies did their song and dance, one of them was knocked from the nest.

It fell, feet up, almost to the ground before remembering that it had wings. At the last minute, it extended them and grabbed a slender branch on a beech tree next to the red oak. There it clung all day, without food and crying until its voice became raspy. By the next afternoon, when there still was no meal service except at the nest, it began scaling the beech tree, branch by branch. At dusk it was opposite the nest and, with much flapping, regained the stick platform. Apparently hawks can go home again.

A day later, there was another near-disaster. For the first time, both birds left the nest voluntarily and began exercising their wings. One gained such momentum, it actually took off and landed in the beech tree a few flaps away.

Beech trees have clumps of small twigs along the trunk and this bird managed to get its feet entangled in such a clump. As it struggled to get free, it lost its balance and flipped upside down. There it hung, dangling by its feet. I doubted that it could survive long and began making frantic, but futile, phone calls for help.

At last I called the people I should have thought of first -- the state wildlife agents. They came equipped to climb 50 feet to the bird, but as they arrived, it freed itself, injuring a foot in the process. The two agents decided to spare the hawk the trauma of being handled and to let nature take its course.

By the middle of June, the fledglings were adult size and spending most of their time out of the nest, although not far from it. The parents began cutting down on food and for three days there was none. The hawks cried in duets and solos until an adult appeared with four feet of black snake swinging from its beak. It perched a short distance from the nest and draped the snake over a tree limb.

The young birds watched tensely. When they realized this meal wasn't going to come any closer, they --ed to it and the battle was on. In the end one sibling shoved the other off the branch and ate the entire snake. Later a parent brought a mouse and the hawks wrestled for it in mid-air.

Each new offering of food took the birds deeper into the woods and away from the front yard. I could no longer see them among the leaves, but heard their cries throughout June. When they stopped, I assumed they were learning to hunt.

My last encounter with these hawks was on September 9. The ''baby'' with the raspy voice sat beside the house and gave a loud cry, maybe saying farewell before migrating.

Since then, each spring has brought red-shoulders here to nest, but not in the front yard. Which may be just as well; raising hawks is exhausting work -- even for a hawk watcher.

9) Beverly C. Crook writes from Phoenix.

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