Saturday, January 31, 2009
Like all predators, Cooper’s hawks are persistent. Seldom a day passes that a Cooper’s hawk—likely the same one—doesn’t make at least one pass around the cottage and through the bird-feeder area. The usual drill is to come zipping into the zone from upstream. This keeps the cottage between the incoming bird and potential victim, a hunting tactic which relies on surprise—one moment the unsuspecting birds are feeding happily, the next their worst nightmare of winged death is smack in their midst. Naturally, the feeder gang scatters explosively. Sometimes a confused bird practically flies into the hawk’s clutches. Occasionally, an unfortunate bird gets hampered by limbs or bushes blocking the escape route—a momentary delay that can prove fatal. Or the terror-stricken escapee may get fooled by the reflective mirage of the great room’s window, thump themselves silly, and thereby seal their fate. None of these scenarios are what you’d call a Disney Moment. Reality in nature can seem brutal…until you accept that every living creature on the planet eats to survive, whether they consume sunflower seeds or tufted titmice. My feeders attract songbirds which attract hawks— which are, after all, only another bird. Yet the situation I’ve created—lots of birds at the same location—does aid and abet the hawk. To help counteract this unintended partisanship, nothing beats an old Christmas tree. When the holidays have ended and the decorations have been removed, rather than dragging my decommissioned tree curbside to await the trash haulers, or adding it ignominiously to the compost heap, the tree gets deployed for secondary seasonal duty. Laid on its side near the box elder, at the center of the feeding area, the old evergreen provides an immediate hideout when there isn’t time to fly away—a sort of on-site sanctuary. I’ve regularly watched birds dive into this handy refuge to escape a marauding Cooper’s hawk. Usually the hawk sees them, too—not that it does any good. When placed on their side, Christmas trees pack into a dense mass, limbs tucking inward, long needles closing and covering like a blanket. Add a bit of snow on top and it’s almost a castle keep. The only way you can see inside this solid shelter is by looking up (or what would be “up” if the tree were still vertical) the trunk. The hawk will land beside the horizontal tree and begin circling, craning it neck, trying to peer into the dark, tangled depths of limbs and greenery. Sometimes these aggressive hunters will attempt to wade and wiggle their way into the Christmas tree’s “innards,” figuring to catch whatever they’ve cornered. Which seldom proves manageable for the large hawk. Or the hawk will hop atop the downed mass and try to flush their quarry from its effective shelter. Nothing ever works. The hawk finally gets frustrated, flummoxed at capturing what seemed like an easy meal, and flies off. Though the Christmas tree shelter often holds a dozen or more refugees—ground feeders, usually sparrows and a wren or two, maybe a dove—I’ve never seen a hiding bird get caught. The best part is watching the hidden birds come back out—cautious, just a quick peek; then a better look from a stance outside the dense evergreen mass; finally, the coast clear, either a resumption of feeding or a take-off to elsewhere, more time at a safer distance until the nerves are settled. The wrens like to celebrate their victory with a snatch or two of song, usually performed from atop the horizontal tree. To my way of thinking, this is recycling at its best…turning refuse into refuge.