Tetrapod Zoology

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Yesterday, my colleague Anthony Butcher (who shares my office at UoP.. but, alas, works on Palaeozoic microfossils called chitinozoans) was driving out of our carpark when he realised that the grey object he had driven past on the pavement was a sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, plucking the pigeon it had just killed. He reversed, held his phone out of the window, and took several photos. The hawk – less than a metre away – couldn’t care less and carried on. The photos aren’t brilliant, but for me they bring home the point that we are surrounded by extraordinary animals doing extraordinary things, if only we care to look for it. Toni and I watched two male blackbirds battling over a territorial boundary last week, which had me thinking the same thing…

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And while grubbing around for pennies in Bitterne precinct earlier today, I noticed the elongate, silvery object you should be able to see on the ground in the image here. It was a dead Slow-worm Anguis fragilis: I’ve mentioned before that I find them wherever I go, but finding one in the middle of a pedestrian precinct really does take this to the next level. Partially eaten (its back end and tail were missing), and covered in bite marks, it may have been the victim of a large bird (corvid or gull) or pet dog (it was not too far from a church yard, and presumably originated from there).

Anyway, back to conference preparation…

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Comments

  1. #1 Owen
    May 2, 2008

    Back in college, when I was dating my then-girlfriend, a hawk took a pigeon mid-flight just outside her dorm window. It proceeded to snack on the pigeon on the sidewalk below her window while she watched (which may indicate some of the reason why I love her so).

  2. #2 Smilodon
    May 2, 2008

    I’ve watched through my 7th story office window as Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) and even a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter atricapillus) capture Rock Pigeons (Columba livia). That is really something to see. Near my office I see Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperi) that are quite acclimitated to the presence of humans, perching on utility poles just a half block from a busy six-lane road.

  3. #3 Jo Ann
    May 2, 2008

    The red tailed hawks kept the pigeon population in check near Cornell University, New York City.

    They would call us (in the laboratory animal facility) when they found an injured pigeon or abandoned chick.

  4. #4 IanR
    May 2, 2008

    I once saw a raptor (I thought it was a peregrine, but I may be totally wrong) take a pigeon outside of a building on Michigan State University’s campus. The cool thing was that there were several pigeons there, and it took the one bird in the group with a large amount of white plumage. Natural selection in action?

  5. #5 Joao
    May 2, 2008

    Where do I get one of those to get rid of the pigeons that insist to rest on my window and don’t let me sleep in the morning? (not mentioning the hygienic issue too…)
    Urgent pls!

  6. #6 Zach Miller
    May 2, 2008

    I’ve perfected my raven call, and I’m working on my bald eagle whistle. These two birds are onmipresent in Anchorage, depending on the season. When I find one, I will routinely stand as close as possible before the bird starts getting uncomfortable, then begin squacking and whistling. The ravens are much more tolerant of my feeble attempts (although I’ve got the majority of their vocalizations down) and will, occasionally, answer back. The eagles, however, eye me with suspecion and malice, and usually fly away.

    Actually, the sizable eagle population in Homer are far more tolerant of me. I’ve been able to get about five feet from a pair of eagles sitting on a stump, and they just ignored me.

  7. #7 neil
    May 2, 2008

    Nice sighting. I have the ocassional sighting of a sparrowhwak over and near my garden but never seen one catch anything – mind you i once saw a kestrel catch an (I’d imagine escaped) canary…

  8. #8 Brian
    May 2, 2008

    Just a week ago, my father also saw a sparrowhawk catching a dove (Streptopelia decaocto, in this case)and start plucking it, just by the roadside. I for one feel bad that I wasn’t there. However, I’ve had my own small pleasures while observing birds lately.

    Just today, I saw a pair of European cuckoos (the female even being one of the rarer red morph!) displaying and following each other around in courtship from a distance of some 15 meters.
    This, I think, would be a fairly unusual thing to observe with cuckoos being neither very common nor conspicuous here.

    And eventhough it happened at the zoo, I was thrilled as I saw a marabou stork patiently wait and observe some ducklings guarded by their agitated mother and then proceed to catch and swallow two. To top things off, the duck responded by attacking the marabou. To no avail, unfortunately for her.

    The most unusual thing I ever saw though, was no less then two entirely white Wagtails in a group of 6. A once in a lifetime-experience, I’m sure.

  9. #9 ctenotrish
    May 2, 2008

    :) I must read XKCD.com too often. I read your title and thought ‘raptor, as in Velociraptor! As in http://xkcd.com/87/. Cool pics, and I am happy to find that ‘raptors are not roaming the grounds of your university.

  10. #10 jck
    May 2, 2008

    When my mother used to live in south Florida, I visited her with some of my college buddies. We decided to go into the Everglades in search of bald eagles. We wandered through for several hours without seeing any (it was the dry season) so we gave up and drove back. As I pulled into the liquor store parking lot a bald eagle swooped right over the hood of the car.

  11. #11 Mark Lees
    May 2, 2008

    Several years ago my brother while walking is dog saw a peregrine strike a green woodpecker and pin it to the ground. His dog (a spaniel) decided to intervene at that point, and the peregrine made off with difficulty carrying the woodpecker which was still flapping its wings. Even more remarkable was the fact that once it took off it attracted the attention of a pair of crows which then mobbed the peregrine casuing it to release the woodpecker which though injured made it into a nearby tree (whether it survived there was no way of knowing).

    Sparrowhawks seem to have a taste for pigeons. I have seen them hunting woodpieons in woodland several times, and once watched a sparrowhawk chase a feral pigeon along a city street, and I don’t mean a quiet suburban street, this was a residential street with small gardens and few trees near the city centre. The sparrowhawk seemed oblivious while pursuing the pigeon of the people around about, but once the pigeon evaded it, it quickly headed for cover and disappeared.

  12. #12 Gene Goldring
    May 2, 2008

    Joao
    Purchase an owl figurine approx. 12″ tall and glue it to your window sill.

  13. #13 Mike from Ottawa
    May 3, 2008

    My Mom has bird feeders in her back yard that attract (among many others) mourning doves. There’s a red-tailed hawk that takes about a dove a week, so my Mom is feeding hawks by proxy.

    It’s a pretty crowded back yard and only the doves are dumb enough to get caught by the hawk with all the cover there is.

  14. #14 Allen Hazen
    May 3, 2008

    Jo Ann, could you clarify? I know the Cornell Medical school is in New York City, but the main campus of Cornell University is (guesstimate) 150 miles away in a small town in “upstate” New York: where are you talking about? (Could be either place: quite famously a pair of Red Tailed Hawks in recent years had a nest on an apartment building on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park about a block from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: I’ve seen one get a squirrel.)

    Hmmm. Med school would have lab animals, and you DO say New York City. Cornell med school is about a mile east of the bit of Central Park where I saw the hawk take a squirrel (across VERY intensely urban landscape): were they calling you about orphan pigeon chicks from Central Park, or was there another Red Tailed Hawk operating closer to First Avenue and the East River?

  15. #15 Darren Naish
    May 3, 2008

    Thanks to all for comments, great stuff. Yes, the word raptor is already in use for predatory birds – I remain angry that (thanks to Crichton) it has now become a vernacular term for dromaeosaurs (Tom Holtz suggests we get round this by calling dromaeosaurs ‘raptor dinosaurs’, but that doesn’t really help…).

    I’ve noticed that some raptors become so fixed on targets that they then become almost totally oblivious to all distractions. A couple of years ago a female sparrowhawk began regularly taking out the House sparrows that fed in our front garden, and as Tone and I stood there talking about it, Will (then 3 or 4) ran around in the garden, making lots of noise. A large brown bird rapidly flew past us (about 1 m away), right over Will’s head (only about 1 m above), and executed a dynamic turn round the hedge at the end of the garden. I realised that it was the hawk, and she had just made an (unsuccessful) attack on the sparrows again. You’d think that an animal might not take risks like that when people are around, but ooh no. She then sat on our neighbour’s roof and stayed there for about 20 minutes.

    On another occasion I was walking down a nearby road when I heard a starling alarm call – suddenly a sparrowhawk, pursuing a starling, dived in front of me (about 3 m infront), and disappeared from view behind a parked car. There was the sound of a body hitting metal. I ran to the spot: am still unclear as to what happened, but both birds had made off, and the attack had been unsuccessful.

  16. #16 Smilodon
    May 3, 2008

    Me again…earlier this year I witnessed an adult female Cooper’s Hawk catch a Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus) in mid-air, then land on the dirt road (in a park) maybe 50 feet/15 meters in front of my moving car. I immediately stopped, and watched as the hawk calmed down enough to stop mantling at the car, and start to eat the still living woodpecker, which expressed its dipleasure at being hawk-lunch. After 30 minutes, a Barred Owl (Strix varia) landed on the road next to the owl, looked at the car, then back at the hawk. The hawk took off carrying the woodpecker, followed by the owl. They all disappeared out of sight around a bend. I had never seen a hawk close enough to see that its prey was still alive.

  17. #17 BlindSquirrel
    May 4, 2008

    The other day, I was talking with my friends outside their house when the Tettegouche wolf pack commenced to howling. They were so loud that we were obliged to stop our conversation for 20 sec or so. When they were finished, we continued our talk. No one felt the need to comment on what had just happened. It is a fairly unremarkable occurrence here in northern Minnesota, (USA).

    I never miss your blog. Thanks for your efforts and for reminding me how Gawd damn fortunate I am that I live where I do!

    Sparrow hawks. He he he. We have them too.

  18. #18 Barn Owl
    May 4, 2008

    I inadvertently disturbed a Peregrine Falcon from a recently-killed White-winged Dove, while walking from the parking lot to my lab on campus. There are a pair of Red-tailed Hawks that nest in or around campus-I often see them in flight, and perched in some of the taller trees.

    My neighborhood encompasses a “holdout” family ranch, which is classified as native rangeland, so there are remaining stretches of live oak and mountain cedar (actually an invasive species) woodlands that make decent bird habitat. Last evening, as I was walking my dog, I came across several Mockingbirds harassing a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), as it flew from live oak to live oak. Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures are quite common in town (my dog runs around the backyard barking, when they soar overhead); you’re more likely to see Crested Caracaras here when you get out to the ranches and farmland.

  19. #19 Steve Bodio
    May 6, 2008

    I have actually had a Cooper’s hawk enter my pigeon loft and kill a pigeon. In the fall the first year birds often chase my pigeons, showing little fear of humans– some will even fly between us to get to prey.

    The latest visitor is a raven who seems to think that sitting on the fence and calling to the dogs below (who go NUTS!) is hilarious. He has come around for almost a week now.

    Our town is so small and surrounded by wild New Mexico country that bears, coyotes, deer, and collared peccary all come through it. A young cougar managed to get inside the fence at the local high school last year– he was tranquilizer- darted and removed. The sheriff showed me photos on his cell phone– modern times!

  20. #20 Steve Bodio
    May 6, 2008

    I forgot to add– “Raptor” is so commonly used now for dromaeosaurs that I have been corrected by puzzled listeners for using it to (properly) refer to birds of prey.

  21. #21 shawn
    May 6, 2008

    Last year, very early spring while walking to work, I heard a loud “POOF” and then looked up and thought that it was snowing. But apparently the red-tailed female that hangs out in the church tower behind my house had managed to catch a pigeon. She hit it that hard that I heard the impact, and she tore into it so fiercely that I thought the feathers were snowflakes. I stopped to watch and she just looked at me like “You want a piece of me?” Beautiful bird.

  22. #22 Pat
    May 16, 2008

    I was once sitting peacefully under a tree in the short grass of my local park, watching a female blackbird foraging a couple of feet away when I felt a whoosh as something very narrowly missed the top of my head and hit the blackbird like a tiny ton of bricks. It was a sparrowhawk, who proceeded to pluck its catch on the ground, occasionally glaring at me irritably. It made me feel very glad to be 5 ft 4″ and human, I can tell you.

  23. #23 dragonet2
    December 10, 2010

    We have peregrine falcons that breed in Kansas City. They were hacked out on the AT&T skyscraper and the population has grown. We have a sufficiency of pigeons to assure their health and expansion.

    Though a worker in said skyscraper said it was unnerving to, at one moment, see a pigeon waddling on the edge of the ledge outside their window, then see a flash of movement, a puff of feathers, and a pigeon head popping back up onto the ledge….

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