Thursday, November 18, 2010

Urban dwellers

Doug has a relationship with the birds that visit my feeders and brush pile every day. He quietly sits in his office typing away and, upon hearing an alarm call, he pulls back the sheer curtain and more often than not spies one of three free-ranging neighborhood cats: black cat, brindle cat, and this fluffy orange and white cat who really cannot understand that he is most unwelcome in my yard. My urban neighborhood is not populated with cat owners who keep their animals inside like they should, or even drape their cats in collars with bells so that birds, snakes, frogs, and small mammals will be alarmed by their stalking.

Anyway, the birds make an alarm call--usually a chickadee or a cardinal will do the work--and Doug quickly bails out of the office to run madly at the cats to shun them out of the yard. The system works, and since he keeps a close eye and ear on the birds, we have yet to see a damned housecat take even a single ground-foraging and unsuspecting dark-eyed junco. Birds are not adapted to dealing with housecats. Neither are frogs, snakes, chipmunks, deer-footed mice, and the rest of the natural world that fall prey to housecats by the millions every year.

But earlier this week, the birds didn't make a peep, they simply disappeared--a mob scene on the sunflower seeds one minute, and the next, 50 bird heads sticking out like whack-a-moles from the brushpile. Expecting the brindle cat or that stupid orange and white cat, Doug pulled back the sheer to find a Cooper's hawk perched on my ever-burgeoning brushpile, now about 5 ft. tall with Silphium perfoliatumstalks, cedar slash and the remains of a sickly silver maple that drops limbs when the wind merely whispers through the neighborhood. Unsure of his footing, and clearly unsure of what he was supposed to do in this situation of hiding birds ("they were just there!"), the hawk rumbled and stumbled around the brushpile long enough for a few photos, then left the scene. As soon as he left, a groundswelling of white-throated sparrows, wrens, cardinals, doves, juncos (and the rest of the motley crew that hangs out in the yard) came pouring out of the brushpile.

Known as a woodland hawk, Cooper’s hawks deftly fly through trees in search of birds. Leafy suburbs and quiet neighborhoods in cities seem to be fine enough places to reside for these hawks, and certainly bird feeders help them find easy prey. Mourning doves, rock pigeons, robins, jays and flickers--bigger birds--are preferred food sources for Cooper’s hawks, but one study in Arizona determined that their nestlings can suffer from a disease acquired from eating dove meat. These birds have also been known to prey on small mammals like chipmunks, squirrels and bats; western populations depend on small mammals for the bulk of their diet.

Unlike falcons which tear into prey with their beaks, Cooper’s hawks kill their prey by repeated squeezing. It’s also been reported that they sometimes choose to drown their prey by holding them underwater until they stop moving. (Vicious, man.)

Cooper’s hawks are year-round residents in Missouri and are common in towns, especially around bird feeders with hearty populations of unsuspecting doves and jays. The hawk hasn't been seen since that day, but hopefully he's waiting patiently in my chinquapin oak (an 1845 witness tree with fire scars!) waiting on the Western diet of field mice to avail themselves from the abandoned lot next door. He needs to keep his claws off my flickers.

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