We all know that life in the wild isn't quite so cutesy sanitized as many of those T.V. nature shows would have you believe. Reality is harsh, raw…and often colored a bloody crimson. "Red in tooth and claw," was how Tennyson put it. Every living thing eats to survive. And sometimes that space between eating and being eaten, the juncture between life and death, is measured by a fraction of a second.
Late yesterday, more than an hour after the sun had disappeared over the western horizon, in the near-darkness of the hurried winter twilight, something thumped against my deskside window…which, as I looked up, was immediately followed by a much louder thump.
I jerked in startled reaction, even as I watched the bigger bird pin the smaller bird to the glass. I also saw in that brief instant that the big bird was some type of small hawk, and the prey was the pretty male cardinal which had been busily feeding on sunflower seeds from the basket hanging under the eave.
Cardinals are always one of the first birds to come to the feeders in the morning, often arriving while dawn is only a faint eastern glow, and one of the last to leave in the evening, regularly sticking around until they're only silhouettes in the waning dusk. This scarlet-feathered fellow had lingered a moment too long.
The hawk—which I recognized by its small size and proportionately diminutive head shape as a sharp-shinned—flew over to the wooden fence along the yard's side boundary, a hundred feet away, carrying the limp cardinal tucked underneath, clutched securely by sharp talons. After landing atop the fence the sharpie sat for a couple of minutes, as they usually do, making sure its soon-to-be meal was dead. Then it began quickly plucking the redbird—yanking out gobs of bright feathers which were dropped over both sides of the fence. I couldn't have de-feathered that cardinal any quicker or better myself.
Plucking completed, the sharp-shinned polished off its warm supper, making short work of what was really a rather large meal. Then the hawk flew off across the river. The darkness was by then so complete that if it hadn't been for the bird's lighter underwings and a band of white at the tip of the tail, I wouldn't have been able to track its flight.
[Photographic/bird notes: I apologize for an admittedly poor image. When I shot this—which is only a very small portion of the frame—it was not nearly so bright out as the picture appears. In fact it was too dark to read the headlines on a newspaper. I had the camera's ISO cranked to the maximum. The 200mm lens (a 300mm since I'm shooting digital) was braced against the window glass so I could handhold at 1/30th of a second. And once I'd uploaded the image to iPhoto, I did all I could to brighten, sharpen, and add contrast. It actually came out better than I expected. And for you birders who may be looking at what seems to be a more rounded tail, and thus thinking it's a Cooper's rather than a sharp-shinned, know that it's just a quirk of this particular frame; others do show the more squared-off shape. I have Cooper's visiting regularly, and not only was this bird much smaller, but the key differences were also visible. I'm pretty sure I have it right…but I'm open to debate.]