Thursday, December 01, 2005

Watching for Raptors in Winter

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Talk about coincidences.

Monday morning I took advantage of a break in the rain to bike from my home in Champaign to my office on campus at the U of I. As I approached a vacant lot on White Street just east of First, five crows swooped in to land in a leafless silver maple tree, where another crow was already perched, calling as though his life depended on it. The others took up the cry with equal fury, rocking back and forth and bobbing their heads in the direction of a midlevel branch.

There sat a red tailed hawk, miserable from a night of rain, her wet feathers buffeted by the wind, now under assault by six angry crows. The hawk was clearly agitated by all the attention, but she stayed put, and after a bit, the crows moved on.

The coincidence involved with this hawk sighting is that I was on my way to the office to write this radio piece about looking for birds of prey in late fall and winter. It may be a lousy time of year for other outdoor activities, but it’s a great time to see hawks, falcons, owls, and even eagles—the meat-eating birds known collectively as raptors.

This incident also illustrates much of what I intended to say about looking for birds of prey.

First, it shows that paying attention to the behavior of other birds can help you to see raptors you wouldn’t otherwise notice. Any time you’re outdoors and you hear an excited group of crows or blue jays, take a minute to see what’s causing the stir. Crows and jays make it their business to track and harass birds of prey whenever they encounter them. Find the center of their attention, and you may well find a hawk or an owl.

The behavior of birds being hunted by hawks can also alert you to their presence. Cooper’s hawks, for example, often prey on the birds that congregate at backyard feeders. So if you’ve got a yard full of sparrows that goes suddenly still, look up. There could be a hawk soaring overhead, or perched in a tree nearby. And if the small birds at your feeder all take flight together, look to see whether a cooper’s hawk has zoomed in to grab one.

My Monday morning hawk sighting also illustrates the point that you need not make special trips to see raptors, especially when the leaves are off the trees. If you look out for birds of prey you have a chance to see them anytime you step out the door, even in urban areas. Red tailed hawks, cooper’s hawks, great horned owls, screech owls, and American kestrels all have adapted to life in built up human environments. In our area numbers of these birds are steady to increasing, thanks to the 1972 ban on DDT.

You can see even more birds of prey with a little bit of looking. Winter travel provides excellent hawk watching opportunities, since the grassy strips along highways are such good habitat for the small mammals that hawks and falcons often eat. Of course if you’re driving you’ll want to keep your eyes on the road, but if you’re a passenger you can spot raptors by scanning the tops of fences, road signs, and power poles, where hunting birds might perch.

All of this is really to say you don’t have to turn on the Discovery channel to see birds of prey. They live among us, and this is a great time of year to look for them.