By Sally Griffin
Sometimes the stories about animals in our area just pop up and remind me of how much wild animals can sometimes adapt to living with humans and, in other instances, they can’t. I am thinking of two recent events that show the extremes of animal behavior.
First is a story about how Jefferson County is temporarily closing five public spaces. Only 11 of more than 1,000 climbing routes and only 5.4 miles of 236 miles of trails are closed. One of the reasons for closing these areas involves protecting nesting hawks.
“If you scare a red-tailed hawk off its nest, it only takes a couple seconds for a crow or blue jay to land, destroy and eat the eggs,” according to Jefferson County Open Space Visitor Services Manager, Mary Ann Bonnell. “It only takes a few moments for them to peck nestlings to death. That’s something most people don’t think about when they decide to go hiking through closed areas.”
To protect future hawks and other animals, including elk calves, nighthawks and eagle nestlings, the areas where trails are closed include Centennial Cone Park, Clear Creek Canyon Park, North Table Mountain Park, Cathedral Spires Park, and Crown Hill Park. The rangers are so serious about protecting the hawks and other animals that trespassing in these areas can result in a fine of $100,000, imprisonment or both. That could be one very expensive hike.
The second event shows how hawks can also, uncharacteristically, adapt to spending time near humans. On “Next with Kyle Clark” last week, he indicated that The Most Colorado Thing We Saw Today was a hawk that has taken up residence in the Thornton Costco. This Costco Hawk seems to be a very adaptable creature.
“It’s helping customers select the highest quality big screen TVs by dive-bombing the ones that are so crystal clear, they appear to show real live prey,” Clark said.
That doesn’t mean the hawk can’t distinguish real prey when it appears in front of it. When the store employees opened the doors to invite the dive-bombing hawk to exit, a pigeon flew in instead and the hawk thought, “Lunch! Thanks!” and quickly dispatched and ate the pigeon. Costco has turned to a bird-rescue group for help, but, in the meantime, customers and employees are being watched, not like a hawk, but by an actual hawk.
Colorado has several different varieties of hawks, but the most widespread and common of these is the red-tailed hawk. The red-tailed hawk typically lives in open areas with patches of tall trees or poles. They are usually a sit-and-wait predator and require elevated perches for hunting. If you ever travel on U.S. 76, be sure to look for hawks perched on the high utility poles alongside the road. One time, coming back from visiting relatives, we counted, between Julesburg and Fort Morgan, over 30 hawks perched on the crossbars of these poles. It is clear that they have welcomed and found a way to use this distinctly human invention. From these and other high perches, they help themselves to a wide variety of small to medium-sized mammals, other birds, reptiles, amphibians and fresh carrion.
Some hawks, luckily none is this area, have learned, like humans, how to utilize fire for their own purposes. A study of hawks in Australia by Dr. Mark Bonta and others in the Journal of Ethnobiology has found some “firehawks,” as they are known, that seem to deliberately start or re-start fires. These firehawks seem to swoop down and pick up the non-flaming end of a branch from a wildfire and carry it to another spot to start a new fire.
“Their motive for spreading fire would be the same as that for spending time very close to active wildfires: when there’s a fire in a forest, animals of all kinds come running out, away from it,” Bonta said. “Which is basically Mother Nature’s way of saying, ‘Soup’s on!’ for the raptors.” I certainly hope that raptors in our area don’t learn this technique.
Breeding season, which happens about now, initiates a death-defying dance for hawk pairs. They fly in large circles and gain great heights, then the male plunges into deep, deep dives. Later, when the female is convinced of his intentions, they grab hold of one another with their talons, uttering shrill cries, and spiraling rapidly toward the ground, often only pulling apart at the last moment. They are monogamous and may mate for life. They make stick nests high above the ground in which they lay one to five eggs each year. Both hawks incubate the eggs for four to five weeks and feed the young from the time they hatch until they leave the nest about six weeks later.
The fierce, screaming cry of the red-tailed hawk is frequently used as a generic raptor sound effect in movies and television shows, even if the bird featured is a bald eagle or other raptor. Evidently, eagles have wimpy cries compared to hawks.
It is easy to identify a red-tailed hawk because they have a beautiful red tail. But they usually don’t get a red tail until they are two years or older and some never get red tails. However, in flight, where you can see the underside of the wings, there is usually a distinctive dash-comma pattern on the leading edge of their wings.
Surprisingly, red-tailed hawks have learned to safely hunt rattlesnakes. They will land near the snake and open both wings. They will flutter one or both wings. The move will distract the attention of the snake to the open wings. If the snake should strike, it will usually go for the open wings, rather than the body of the hawk. The hawk then will use its talons to grab the snake in the middle and make a quick bite to the head.
Primarily, however, they are very effective at keeping rodent populations down. Small rodents make up 85 to 95 percent of their diet. Their eyesight is eight times as powerful as that of a human, allowing them to spot a mouse (or rattlesnake) from almost 10 stories above. They can then dive to catch their prey at speeds than can exceed 120 mph.
Just remember, state and federal laws protect all raptors. If you have domestic birds or animals needing protection from raptors, your best bet is to put a roof over their cages to prevent the hawks from spotting them and, then, using their dive-bombing hunting techniques.