It’s not often that I am able to extend a story from one week to the next, but this week, we have something quite special indeed. It’s the story of what happened the day after I wrote last week’s column, which focused on the hunting attempts of a hopeful, but somewhat forlorn red-tailed hawk that had been hanging around my backyard. This bird was clearly hoping to get lucky and pick off a small rodent of some sort, but the attempt that I witnessed was unsuccessful.
The photos were quite wonderful, and when put into the correct sequence they did a good job of illustrating a few moments of this bird’s life on a cold, overcast afternoon in late March. Emblematic of the survival of most animals that spent the winter with us, this hawk was probably not nearly as desperate as I might have thought. Most hunting attempts result in failure, so this particular hawk was probably just going through a normal day.
Still, the conditions must be quite challenging at this time of year. The snow has finally melted away, but the growing season hasn’t really kicked in yet. I think I have an unreasonable expectation that mid-April should be bright, warm and green. But every year, when spring break finally arrives, I am reminded that my wishes mean for very little in the events of the real world. April is actually cold, damp and not particularly green at all.
For the wild animals of our area, the conditions are quite challenging. The breeding season hasn’t really kicked in yet, so predatory animals don’t really have a “target-rich” environment to hunt in. With every passing day, there are fewer and fewer targets for their hunting attempts, and those targets are more and more experienced with evasion.
Still, the larder is also rather bare for the herbivores. The seed stocks are as low as they are likely to be and fresh green foods are still hard to find. The buds of trees might at first be the equivalent of little brussel sprouts (without the butter, salt and pepper that you and I might enjoy) and there won’t be any other fresh greens for a while to come. As the melting snow has yielded the winter’s secrets, I have discovered that a black raspberry bush by my driveway has been heavily browsed by the rabbits in my yard. Times, I would think, must be pretty tough for raspberry stems to seem like palatable fare.
Thus, it was with the greatest surprise and delight that a morning after watching a red-tailed hawk miss at a hunting attempt, I happened to look out into my backyard and see the red-tailed hawk standing over the remains of a freshly-killed gray squirrel. Oh, how I would have liked to see the melee that had ensued! What error must that squirrel have made in the presence of a determined and desperate predator?
In my former life, I spent a great deal of time rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife. As luck would have it, one of the most common species to arrive at my doorstep was the gray squirrel. These animals live in abundance around humans and encounters between the species are frequent. Every year, someone would find a nest of baby squirrels and bring them to me for safekeeping.
As a result of this constant care, I became quite familiar with the lives of squirrels and with their physical attributes. As trusting youngsters, they would submit to being grabbed around the ribcage and I could feel the muscles working under the skin. As the squirrels got older, they were less and less happy about being grabbed and as their bodies thickened with strong climbing muscles, it was easy to see that they were actually quite powerful creatures.
So as I stepped out onto the deck to take photos of the red-tailed hawk with its prey, I noticed that the bird did not take flight and carry the squirrel off to a more private perch where it could dine in peace. Instead, the hawk dragged the squirrel to the edge of my lawn, seeming to struggle a bit with the squirrel’s weight. This seems fair when you consider that a fully-grown red-tailed hawk might only weigh 2 pounds, while a fully-grown squirrel might weigh in at 1 pound. When adding in the ferocity of a squirrel fighting for its life, it may be easy to see why a hawk would prefer a smaller and far less dangerous vole.
Nonetheless, the hawk had finally been successful in a hunt. When the hawk finally reached the brush at the side of my lawn, I heard the telltale twitter of a tree swallow and looked up to see several of them zipping around in circles in the air above my house.
Rather than walk over and harass the bird, I decided to let it enjoy its hard-won meal in peace. I was just lucky to witness part of the drama and get photos of an event that was over almost before it began.
Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.