I wasn’t expecting to hear the shrieks and shrills outside my home office window just before dusk one afternoon last week. Based on the sounds, I assumed it was a cat-on-squirrel fight, or a squirrel-on-squirrel fight.
I was wrong.
A Cooper’s hawk thrashed on the ground in the clearing between the house and the hardwood forest beyond. I hoped it had a chipmunk in its talons (nothing personal; the chipmunks’ cuteness factor lost me when they tunneled through my yard, which killed a lot of mature shrubs, and led to drainage issues).
Whatever the hawk had on the ground beneath its wingspan, wasn’t giving up easily. But the large bird extended its wings and fully covered its prey. Its powerful talons had a tight hold. Occasionally the predator tumbled and rolled, then righted itself. The death cry was heartbreaking. Through binoculars I finally caught sight of the prey: a redbreasted woodpecker.
All that remained after the battle were some pin-striped, downy feathers scattered among the leaves.
Even in East Cobb, where habitats are lost to development, hawks still circle overhead. My neighborhood of woods and streams is prime hawk territory. We’ve had nesting red-tailed hawks for several years. This beneficial hunter takes out the chipmunks and other rodents, along with an occasional snake.
The Cooper’s hawk, though, is a relative newcomer to my patch of ecosystem. While not endangered, this species is in decline so isn’t seen frequently. A Cooper’s hawk eats other birds, and doesn’t seem to discriminate. If a backyard feeder is popular among songbirds, a Cooper’s hawk might decide to hang around.
I’ve seen one from time to time sitting in low branches of tall evergreens, but have never watched it hunt or kill prey. Basically, the larger bird crushed the smaller one to death. My reaction – curiosity tinged with horror – wasn’t uncommon.
Monteen McCord, who runs a raptor rescue and education center in Cherokee County, said sights like what I witnessed are natural and necessary.
“Backyard bird feeders/watchers grimace every time a raptor motors through and snatches their songbird off of their bird feeder,” McCord said in an email. “When they hunt, their job is to keep the gene pool clean and go after the ones that are damaged, slow, or just not paying attention.”
The woodpecker, about half the size of the hawk, probably had it coming, in other words.
“With a first year mortality rate of about 80 percent, most of the raptors have already starved to death,” McCord said. “As the weather gets colder, their metabolism speeds up to keep the body system going, thus requiring more calories. Combine that with a lower prey base in the winter, and you have natural selection at its finest; only the strong will survive through the winter and pass those evolutionary genes onto the next generation.”
To learn more about raptors, including several species of owls and hawks common to East Cobb and the region, a good resource is the slim book, Common Birds of Atlanta, by Jim Wilson and Anselm Atkins. The volume contains color photographs to aid bird identification.
The Bird Watcher Supply Company at 1225 Johnson Ferry Road stocks a good selection of birding books and DVDs.
In addition to McCord’s raptor education site, one of the best ornithology websites in the world is maintained at Cornell University in New York.
There, you can find maps of migration patterns and nesting areas for most every bird species. It’s a great resource for teaching children about the interconnectedness in nature.
Linda Rehkopf writes about dog care, training and animal welfare issues. Her work appears in local and national newspapers, magazines, and websites and has been nominated for the Maxwell Award for Excellence in Canine Writing. She competes in canine sports with her Labrador retrievers, and her first book, "DogLife Labrador Retriever" (T.F.H. Publications) is available online and in local pet and book stores. She and her family have lived in East Cobb for 28 years.