Hungry Hawks and Kestrels

The drought has been as hard on wildlife as it has been on farmers.  Our resident hawks and kestrels have gotten more and more aggressive with our chickens as the populations of mice, gophers and ground squirrels have declined.  I cannot blame them for trying to make a meal out of my birds – they are hungry!  Every creature must do what it can to survive.

The kestrel has been taking a young chick every couple of days from one of my light brown hens.  This poor hen has lost all but one of her chicks.  I have tried locking them up but the chicks are eager to explore and slip through chicken wire and under the edges of their pen as their mother and free-ranging chickens dig up the dirt.  Once out the chicks are vulnerable to the kestrels and one by one they have disappeared.

Yesterday the last chick was out again so I decided to let it’s mother out to protect it.  Not an hour later I heard a commotion and saw the kestrel performing some amazing air acrobatics in an attempt to catch the chick.  He was being put through his paces by the hen who countered his attacks – throwing herself at the predator battering it with her wings and legs.  It was quite a fight.  The kestrel landed in a tree to rest only to have the hen fly up and attack him in the branches.   I was able to scoop up the chick and return him and the hen to their pen.  Even with my presence the kestrel stayed close by flying over my head to try and find out where the chick was hiding.

I felt very sorry for this wild bird as I knew it had to be extremely hungry to be this bold.  I spent most of the day pondering how I could help it.  Were there ways I could attract sparrows to open areas that would give it a better chance hunting them?  Could I flush mice and moles from the ground in areas where the kestrel could grab them?  If I put out strips of chicken would he take it?

In a weird sort of irony when I left the house this morning I was greeted by a present from one of my cats.  A killed but otherwise untouched sparrow on my door mat.  My first thought went to the kestrel so I took my “present” to an area I know the kestrel frequents and left it poised in a “natural” feeding position.  I hope the kestrel gets it before the ravens do!  I hope it provides a meal and a little more energy to hunt natural prey.

I must be the only farmer who is hoping for a few more field mice, moles, sparrows and small birds to raid my fields.  My neighbors the hawks and kestrels need them!

Sparrow Hawks Successfully Nest

A pair of sparrow hawks live peacefully on our farm and I have enjoyed watching them as they hunt.  At first I worried about whether they would try for the chicks and poults that wander with their Mothers around the farm.  But I soon figured out the Momma hens could take care of themselves and their broods very well – and the sparrow hawks figured it out too.

IMGA0755For the past couple weeks I have seen the pair go in and out of a hole at the top of a utility pole on our property.  Then I started hearing sounds and realized they had a nest.  Soon a chick emerged fledged and ready for his first flight.

I did not get to see him take his first flight but saw him later that day on an almond tree a couple hundred yards away from the nest.  The resident bald eagle was hunting in the area and got chased off rather harshly by the male sparrow hawk.  Its pretty funny to see such a small bird harass and worry a large eagle.

I am keeping an eye out for the young hawk – I hope he makes it!

Turkey Neighborhood Watch

I have learned that one rooster giving an alarm call can be anything from a true warning of danger to a ploy to get his hens to stick closer to him.  So I am not too alarmed when I just hear one of them.  But a chorus of alarm calls from roosters, peacocks (they honk), and turkeys (they putt) is a situation to pay attention to.

This morning the several roosters who frequent my porch and the mother peahen all started sounding alarm so I ran outside to see what was going on.  At first all I saw was a blurr of beige and brown feathers as a hawk flew very quickly across our yard not ten feet from the house.  It was very graceful and quickly landed on the tall walnut tree in our yard.  It was a sparrow hawk – not much threat to a full grown chicken or peacock but it could make a meal out of young chicks.

As I was watching the hawk – who seemed unphased by my attention – a whole rafter (herd) of turkeys came running up to the house.  There were about 20 turkeys in the group and they were giving alarm putts, had their tails spread out, and had their wings slightly spread in “attack” posture.  And they were scanning the skies and trees for a predator.  It was obvious they were intent on finding and dispatching whatever the intruder was.  They spotted the sparrow hawk in the tree and immediately moved right below him, milling about while looking up and making threatening putts.  A couple of them jumped on our lawn furniture to get closer and a few moved closer to the peahen with her peachicks and milled around them.  This last move was very interesting to me because the peahen and turkeys don’t like each other.  They don’t fight anymore but they barely tolerate each other’s presence.  However it was obvious the turkeys were closing ranks and using their presence to deter a threat from the peachicks.

Eventually the hawk flew off and the scene turned to one of calm birds pruning and enjoying the early morning sun.  I am not sure what benefit the turkeys get for being the swat team for the farm – maybe it teaches the predators to stay away and that is safer for the turkeys when their own poults are wandering around the farm.  Or maybe they find it fun.  Turkeys do have a great sense of fun and joy – you can tell they enjoy certain activities very much.  But whatever the reason I am grateful because it helps keep my chickens safe and the hawks a welcome part of the farm.

Bald Eagle Here to Stay

This morning my new neighbor the Bald Eagle provided proof of his intentions – and I am loving him for it.  I saw him swoop down into my almond orchard and pluck up the biggest, fatest, rotund ground squirrel I have ever seen.  A huge squirrel and the eagle could barely take off with it.  He carried it about thirty feet into the air and the squirming squirrel got away….but the damage was done.  The injured squirrel did not live long on the ground.

I did not know if Bald Eagles would take ground squirrels but now I know and I am thrilled this bird is concentrating on the squirrels and not my chickens.  I hope he keeps it up.  We put any ground squirrels we shoot out for the raptors to keep them interested in this type of prey.  We also absolutely prohibit the use of poison on our farm in any form so there can be no mistakes with a tainted ground squirrel body.  This year has been particularly bad for ground squirrels and each of the hawks, osprey, and eagles who call our ranch home could eat two or three a day without making a dent in the population.  I love seeing these birds fly through our trees as they hunt the squirrels.

I was worried at first that the presence of the eagle would drive away my hawks but I have seen the hawks hunting everyday in the back orchard.  So I guess the birds have worked their territory issues out.

My neighbors say there are actually two Bald Eagles – I have only seen one.  Not sure if they are a pair.  One of our neighbors who lives up in the hills had the birds sitting in a pine tree like they were waiting for a photo shoot as they were hosting a dinner party.  What a treat to have such a majestic bird as an unofficial dinner guest!

Return of the Hawks

Much to my relief our resident hawks are back!  They must have had two babies this Spring and now the babies are flying and trying to catch everything on my ranch.  The turkey and chicken hens are escorting their broods around the farm and every once in a while a call goes out and the young birds scatter.  In a few seconds one of the “not so subtle” young hawks flies by screeching its disgust at our farm’s early warning system.  Just wait till they pounce on something on the ground – the turkey hens seem very much in the mood to give them a wallop.

At first I did not know if these two young hawks were related to our resident pair (whom I had not seen for a while).  But the other day I heard the turkey hens give a warning and I looked up expecting to see a miffed young hawk fly by – but none did.  With the turkey hens still calling their warning I scanned the skies and finally saw a small spec of an adult hawk way, way, way up in the air.  Since then I have seen the parents more often – all I have to do is follow the gaze of my turkey hens who seem to be able to spot satellites and sun spots.  Well, okay maybe not those but they sure can see a high flying hawk.  I think the parent hawks are “supervising” their youngster’s hunting forays.  Its kinda neat to watch.

The bald eagle has not been spotted for a week – but neither have the ospreys.  I think the eagle got his meal.

Ospreys 1: Bald Eagle 0

One evening at dusk I was walking through the alfalfa field to change the irrigation when I heard a strange noise.  It sounded like a cross between a frightened llama and a sheep baa.  I spent  several minutes scanning the almond orchard for what could possibly be making that sound.  All of a sudden a bald eagle flew out of the tree canopy and in a dodgy manner started flying toward our main barn.  In hot pursuit were two Osprey pestering the eagle the whole way.  I can only assume they have a nest and the eagle was trying to make a meal out of one of their chicks.  I hope he did not succeed.

I have seen the bald eagle everyday for almost a week now.  It has me a little worried as it definitely is big enough to take a chicken or turkey.  I am also worried about my hawks.  Over the past couple years the pair of resident hawks have chased off any bald eagle that has come by.  The hawks long ago gave up trying to take my chickens and instead stick to ground squirrel, gophers and moles.  It is a nice arrangement.  When we shoot squirrels we always leave them in places where the hawks will see them and get a free meal.  I have not seen the hawks for a while and I wonder if something happened to them or if they just moved to a new territory.  I hope they come back as they were a welcome part of this farm.

Animal Behavior Test You Can Try At Home

I have been reading the book “Illumination in the Flatwoods” about the wild turkeys raised by Joe Hutto.  For the most part I find his observations about wild turkeys to be spot on with what I have experienced with the domestic heritage breeds.  Its very interesting to me that there are such similarities.

One of the observations Mr. Hutto makes is that if he points out something for his birds by pointing with his finger they are smart enough to look at the object of his interest rather than his finger.   I never thought about this before but it is a very astute observation.  The birds know you are pointing something out to them – not that you are giving them something.  Interesting.  I decided to experiment with this with my domestic heritage birds and compare their response to my hound dog’s response.

To be fair the hound dog I engaged in the trial is somewhat lacking in basic intelligence.  Her name is Sheba and we somewhat jokingly believe she was denied oxygen at sometime in her birthing process.  Not the sharpest dog we have!  But she is a willing and enthusiastic participant for any endeavor (particularly if it can include squirrel killing).

Now to the experiment!  I was on my normal rounds feeding and my turkey hens were following hoping that I would step on some walnuts for them to eat.  At one point I stopped and pointed decidedly to the bare ground.  Every hen examined the ground – not my pointing finger.  I tried the same experiment on ground that had grass, leaves, and sticks (but no edibles) and each time the hens looked for what I was pointing to – not my hand.

I tried the same experiment with Sheba and she always looked to my hand/finger.  Interesting to see that the turkeys understood I was pointing something out to them but the dog thought my hand was to be the object of interest!  Try this at home!  I would be interested in hearing how many dogs understood the concept of pointing out an object of interest.

This fascinates me because Mr. Hutto associates the ability to abstract what is pointed to with intelligence.  He infers that this is a measure for the intelligence of a being – and turkeys do better than dogs in his trials!  I don’t know if I would go so far as to say turkeys are more intelligent than dogs but I sure do think they hold their own.  They may just not demonstrate intelligence the way we are used to seeing it.  But the cognitive resouces are there.