Setting: A suburban backyard on a sunny morning in spring.
The Hunter: A male (probably) Cooper's hawk
The Hunted: A rock dove, or feral pigeon, of indeterminate (and now irrelevant) gender
Background Note: For the past two years, the Cooper's hawk has visited the maple tree in our backyard from time to time. We know when he shows up because all the birds suddenly scatter. He usually perches for a few minutes on the tree, looking around, watching for some poor, unsuspecting bird who didn't get the Bird and Bunny Emergency Broadcast Network message. Often, he then flies to a new perch atop a neighbor's swing set to look for the day's special at another favorite alfresco dining spot.
We'd never seen him actually catch anything, but we knew it had happened. Once last year, we spotted a circle of feathery remains (looked like a mockingbird, juding from the colors of the feathers) in one corner of our yard. A few weeks ago, we spotted the remnants of another bird in the front yard, though we couldn't tell what this one was. We're pretty sure that this was the handiwork of the hawk, though, since it was out in the open. (The female cardinal nailed under a forsythia, on the other hand, was probably the work of the neighbor's cat. The hawk didn't seem likley to have gone there.)
We didn't see the moment of contact, or even the flurry of birds scurrying away, but noticed that the backyard was unusually quiet for a warm, sunny spring day and looked out the window. There was the hawk, standing haughtily and proudly atop his kill. The red on his bill shows he had been picking at the carcass, which he is about to do again. At this point, we weren't sure what species the victim represented, though from the size and the hints of coloring we could see, we suspected a rock dove.
After standing triumphantly on its kill for a few minutes, the hawk surprised us by flying into the tree, leaving the rock dove on the ground. He spent about six or eight minutes in the tree, in three different locations, but never returned to his victim. (The first picture in the post is from this period.) A crow flew up at one point, and we wondered if the hawk would chase it off, but it didn't move. The crow must have sensed him, however, because it made no effort to scavenge the rock dove and flew off. About two minutes later, the hawk flew away, leaving the dead rock dove behind. (The second picture in the post shows how the hawk had left his victim.)
We were puzzled, and I was a bit miffed. Cleaning up dead birds was not on my to-do list for the day.
My annoyance was reduced by the quest to figure out exactly what kind of hawk it was. We narrowed it down to either a Sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper's, which have almost exactly the same coloring. Sharp-shins are smaller, though, and research revealed that they are somewhat more reclusive--though they are known sometimes to hit suburban feeders, they tend to stay deeper in woods. Cooper's are more likely to hunt in more open areas, like ours, and--a telling fact--are known to hunt rock doves (which sharp-shins are not). We surmised it was a male because in May, mated pairs nest but only females tend the chicks. It is the males that hunt in this time of year.
About an hour later, the hawk came back.
He picked at the bird again for a few minutes, vigorously enough that he turned the victim around--in the shot here, the rock dove's tail feathers are now to the right, not to the left, as before. Finally, he spent some time maneuvering the carcass with his talons, seemingly in search of the right distribution of weight and the two perfect spots to grab hold. After some trial and error, he got it, took firm hold of the dead rock dove, and flew off. Some downy underfeathers and few longer wing feathers marked the spot where the rock dove had gone down.
The yard remained quiet for a few more minutes. A brave little titmouse was the first to emerge from its hiding place in a bush and hit the feeder. Hunger is obviously a strong motivator. A sparrow followed, and then a cardinal. Eventually, a couple squirrels crept out of their sanctuaries and resumed seed-munching, and soon after the backyard was its usual bustle.
No rock doves, though. Not for two days.
About a week later, some pigeons were once again under the tree, pecking at any seeds other birds had knocked from the feeder onto the ground. Suddenly, they--and all the other birds--took off, and we saw the hawk swoop in. He got hold of one of the rock doves, but apparently couldn't quite get the right purchase, and the potential victim escaped.
Apparently he was faster than his cousin.