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The Thrill of Victory, the Agony of Defeat

February 28, 2008

I’m fortunate to work on the campus of a large university. Not only does the Morehead Planetarium abut to the largest quad on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where there are several large older trees despite the manicured lawn, but on the other side of my building lies the Coker Arboretum, which has several species of fruiting trees that attract lots of birds. I often notice chickadees and kinglets as I walk around the building. A mockingbird has taken up in one of the ornamental trees in front and I nearly always hear waxwings, appropriately flocking towards the cedars that surround the little catholic church next door.

But perhaps most surprising on campus are the raptors. We have our regular Red-shoulders and I’ve seen a Cooper’s Hawk on a couple occasions, no doubt attracted to the birds in the Arboretum. There has famously been a pair of Barred Owls that have nested for many years on the Quad. When UNC won the national basketball title in 2005 (YAY!), the festivities on Franklin Street that night reportedly caused them to abandon their nest for a year (BOO!). But they have stuck around since then, in fact the students I work with have told me about their experiences with them, usually as they cross the quad in the evening. Everyone seems to always be impressed by owls,and rightly so, they’re impressive birds.

I’ve been most interested lately, though, in the pair of Red-tailed Hawks that I assume nest nearby. The day-shift to the owls night-shift, I suppose. I’ve seen them perched in the tops of the tallest trees, nearly always attended by a host of raucous crows and jays, so I was surprised yesterday morning, when I spotted the male of the pair fly into a low tree right in front of my building. Turns out the squirrel who had built a nest in that tree was surprised too.

The hawk began avidly ripping up the squirrel nest, while the squirrel ran down the tree a few feet, chattering and overall very animated.

What is most amazing is that the hawk seemed not to care at all that I was right below it, snapping pictures. I was lucky I had my camera!

I was soon joined by a couple of co-workers arriving at work by bus. We watched as the hawk kept pulling leaves out of the nest, and peering in as if he saw something in there. Is it too early for squirrels to breed?

The squirrel would alternately crouch down on the tree and run up close to the nest when it seemed the hawk was getting close to something interesting. You can see how close the squirrel would get below. It almost seemed at times like the hawk was baiting it, daring it to come closer where he could take a bigger meal than a few tiny squirrel babies.

The hawk eventually tired of the game and flew off to a big tree across the street. It never seemed to find what it was looking for, but I was suddenly more aware at the squirrel nests elsewhere on campus. Nearly every tree had one.

I know that hawks of certain territories are able to learn hunting behaviors that take advantage of abundant prey. The hawks of the American southwest that figure out how to pick individual bats from huge swarms come to mind. Perhaps these campus hawks have learned to take advantage of campus squirrels. The squirrels certainly deserve it, they don’t run from people and generally act like they own the place. That kind of a sense of entitlement is really more of a Duke thing. It just won’t fly here in Chapel Hill.

I’ll certainly be watching these hawks much more closely now. Not that I needed more of a reason.

  1. Greg permalink
    February 28, 2008 10:30 am

    from Wild Mammals of Missouri by Charles Schwartz: “The first mating period begins in late December or early January and varies with the latitude”. If anything, NC would provide more suitable breeding conditions than MO in February.
    So yeah, you didn’t notice any cute little squirrels in the hawk’s talons or flesh in the beak, eh?
    Cool pictures….

  2. Jochen permalink
    February 28, 2008 12:13 pm

    n8, you gotta do me a favour: a blogpost.
    Puleeeeease, come on! I was just kidding you with Alula and my comment on “The Auk”!

    Could you check some skins for me and do a blog post about it (with photos)?
    I have a puzzling picture of a Myiarchus flycatcher and would be interested in the exact tail pattern (spread tail) of Brown-crested and Great Crested Flys to see how the brown areas correspond to the reddish on not just the outermost pair.

    That would earn you a beer or two when one day we shall meet!

  3. Jochen permalink
    February 28, 2008 12:14 pm

    I meant the blog “Great Auk”…

  4. February 28, 2008 12:38 pm

    Hmmm, I’ll think about it Jochen. Your words stung me deep to my soul. : )

    I’ve actually got a pretty awesome jaeger post on tap for next week, but it could wait so I could swing something on Myiarchus. I’ll have to see how many Brown-cresteds my museum has.

    And it better be good beer…

  5. Jochen permalink
    February 28, 2008 1:04 pm

    German beer if you can make it over the Atlantic!

    Nice pics, by the way…

  6. Sky Girl permalink
    February 28, 2008 2:39 pm

    I watched a red-tail eat a snake in a tree on that part of campus a few years ago.

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