Tag Archives: birds

Raptor in residence

10 Dec

I don’t like birds. They creep me out. Sparrows and chickadees and all those tiny birds that peck around when you’re eating your lunch outside. From a distance I don’t mind them — in fact, I think birds can be quite majestic creatures.

However, raptors are a completely different story. I love them. They totally fascinate me; I could watch them for hours. I know that raptors are birds (“birds of prey,” in fact), but somehow they seem like a different species* to me.

Red-tailed Hawk hanging out in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tailed Hawk in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

So you can imagine my delight when a red-tailed hawk visited our office building the other day. The juvenile hawk perched in a tree just outside of our second-floor office windows. She was beautiful! And hunting. (Sidenote: It was unclear whether our feathered friend was male or female, and so for ease of reading our hawk will be a lady.) She hung out in the tree for a long while, surveying the parking lot full of construction workers’ trailers, the sidewalk, and the ivy. And maybe us.

Eventually our visitor hopped to some lower branches toward the ground, where we could no longer see her. Of course, several of us felt the need to go find out what she was doing. And we found her in the ivy, between our building and the sidewalk, devouring a squirrel. It was pretty awesome and gruesome at the same time.

The next day she returned to her tree, and eventually snagged a squirrel again — this time eating him while perched on the 8-foot fence next to the sidewalk. It was so gross I couldn’t stop watching. From my office window, that is.

Red-tail with squirrel in ivy. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Red-tail with a squirrel in ivy behind Ritenour. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

One of my coworkers refused to be excited about the appearance of the hawk. “What is happening to our world?” he exclaimed. “The hawks shouldn’t be this close to humans.”

Which led me to ponder why indeed the hawk was here on campus — our building is close to the HUB — the student union building — and we are very much in the midst of human traffic. Turns out this is not unusual behavior for a red-tail at all.

I spoke with Doug Steigerwalt, director of the Raptor Center at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, who confirmed that our hawk friend was indeed an immature red-tailed hawk. Red-tails are what Steigerwalt called generalists, because you can find them all across North America — they are possibly the most common hawk on the continent.

Steigerwalt also told me that red-tails do well around people because we tend to create a good habitat for them to hunt. And he pointed out that there are a few known red-tails who reside in New York City — one of whom hatched in 1990 and is still living and breeding on a 5th Avenue building.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.

Back to our resident raptor, Steigerwalt said that she could easily have flown in from elsewhere in the country. Red-tails are partial migrants — they can spend winters in the same area that they breed in, which is not true of all birds.

This is our hawk friend’s first winter, said Steigerwalt, so she doesn’t have a pattern yet. If she survives this winter, she’ll be in good shape. Winter is basically the make-or-break period for red-tails. Many don’t make it through the winter, but those who do are likely to be able to survive many winters afterward.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a hawk outside your window, you can visit the Raptor Center where Steigerwalt works. There are two red-tails in residence there — a male and a female. They aren’t housed together, because they would compete for food and such, so they are separated. But interestingly, (to me, at least) one hawk bunks with a turkey vulture.

We haven’t seen our hawk in a while now, so she has probably moved on to a different area to hunt. I probably would have moved away from the clamor of campus as soon as possible if I were her, too. Although she certainly had many fat squirrels to feast on while she was here — if you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about squirrels.

*Addendum, Dec. 16: My uncle (who read my post — hurrah!) kindly pointed out to me that raptors are a different species — “several in fact,” he says. He is right, and shame on me for not catching this. In terms of scientific classifications, a species is as specific as you can get.

As many of us were taught in general biology class, there are 7 major classifications, remembered by a mnemonic device such as “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species. All birds are in fact in the same class (Aves), not the same species. Thank you, Uncle Erich, for keeping it real!

Quoth the Raven …

2 May

Well we don’t have ravens, but I woke up this morning to the raucous screeching of a crow — cousin of the common raven — outside my window.  Not an uncommon occurrence in State College today, but ten years ago, crows were rarely seen in town or on campus.  Now they are ubiquitous in pairs throughout the summer tending their nests and their young and in groups roosting at night on campus in the winter.

Patrick Mansell, Penn State

I’m told they group together at night in the winter in locations that are slightly warmer and where there is light, and of course trees in which to roost.  This makes campus an ideal location and this winter we saw streams of crows congregating at dusk, a la Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” flying to the front of Old Main to spend the night in the trees.

I suppose I noticed my pair first as they are noisy and large.  Initially, they didn’t bother me because, as I walked to campus in the morning I would see a variety of road kill and by afternoon on my return, the streets were clean.  Love those carrion eaters.  Well, omnivores at any rate.

Two things really brought the crow population to my notice.  The first was their first congregation and roosting spot above the main bus stop downtown.  The sidewalk and grass quickly became coated in a layer of white crow excrement.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to notice as soon the university’s Office of Physical Plant announced they would use “bangers and screamers” and dead crow effigies to move the flock somewhere else.  We’ve been using “bangers and screamers” now for years and they do move the crows from populated areas to less bothersome spots.  But the crow population is expanding as well.

The second event bringing the crows into focus was the day I arrived home to find one calmly walking on my roof ridge.  Goosebumps popped out on my arms and legs and a cold chill ran down my spine.  The image of evil from every movie depiction of crows and there it was, on my roof.

However, recent research suggest that crows are highly intelligent, using tools and creating tools as well and perhaps participating in competitions.  They certainly have learned that humans here in Pennsylvania are not likely to harm them and cheeky might be the best word to describe their behavior.

While my pair of crows seem to live and nest in my backyard — although I can’t find the nest — they seem to be alone.  Other breeding pairs usually have young offspring and family members who help with the nest and the nestlings.  But my pair, larger this year than last, seem to be on their own.

I think the reason the crows keep moving back to populated areas is they actually like us.  My pair don’t seem to mind if I’m on the deck and they fly down to investigate.  I don’t usually see them on the rail unless I’m outside.  I’m hoping it’s friendship I see in the bright eye and tip of the head and not an appraisal of dinner to come.

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