For some birders, there is nothing more interesting to be seen while driving around looking for birds than to see predatory raptors working flocks of little birds (dickey birds in rural Texas parlance.)
When a hawk looking for food swoops over a flock of birds on a first pass it’s identifying the individuals that have slower reactions. When it swings by again it’s remembering where the target individual bird hid and flushes it again. On the third or fourth pass, it sometimes is able to make the kill.
Nothing is daintier than one of the accipiters picking the feathers off a bird held in its talons, and looking around for danger in every direction before yanking a few more feathers out. Accipiters are unmatched in their pose of innocence and inattention as they sit motionless in a thicket while a flock of “dickey-icky-stupid” birds approach and pay no attention until suddenly the accipiter explodes into the flock and has another meal.
Ducks waffling in for a landing are a beautiful sight that’s pleasurable every time it happens, but for some birders, ducks don’t give the same jolt of awe as does a hawk floating around in the sky and suddenly wheeling into a diving, plunging attack on a bird flying below. Peregrine and prairie falcons dive at incredible speeds. Sometimes a peregrine will slug a dove or duck with its talons, breaking its back as it flies by, then it wheels and dives and catches its target as it plummets earthward.
Even a roadrunner chasing a lizard through the grass, catching it and carrying it off with the tail dangling from its beak is more fun for raptor lovers than a group of lark buntings scratching around in a field. Why would anyone wish that the roadrunner scrambling up and down in a tree chasing a house sparrow would wind up with an empty beak? Marvel at the way the roadrunner prepares his meal when it catches a bird or small reptile — it then beats it on the ground to kill it and tenderize it, in a most natural act. It is not cruelty, but efficient dispatch and preparation.
The only water birds that act like predators are the herons. Regardless of individual techniques, each heron conveys intense concentration while hunting. This is much more exciting than the shorebirds hunt for food with random running and pecking of peeps and the haphazard probing of mud or sweeping the water.
Few folks experience watching the kill by an owl. Crepuscular owls like short-eared and the long-eared that visit in the winter hunt along draws and arroyos with trees in the last hour before sundown. Their actions sometimes mimic that of harrier hawks, as they suddenly stop their forward momentum and then juke and jive like a point guard in basketball game, trying to get their prey to desperately make a break for a safer location.
Predatory animals developed many skills to capture their prey. Coyotes learned long ago to trail badgers as the badger digs for ground squirrels and prairie dogs, and it captures the prey that escapes that escapes the badger. Coyotes will take turns chasing a jackrabbit in a big circle across a pasture. Harris’s hawks, a bird only found in and near the Chihuahuan Desert, learned that technique, too, and are the only hawk in the world that hunts cooperatively.
Watching predators connect you to our fore bearers who had to hunt to survive. Analyzing the behavior of a predator as it does “what it is meant to do” is great mental exercise. The author Paul Shepard wrote that humankind’s brain developed from watching predators!
Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams of the Sibley Nature Center.