Birding Notes

Reflections on birds and other wildlife on the edge of a southern woodland

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Red-shouldered Hawk and Downy Woodpecker

Late yesterday afternoon, under gray skies layered with rumpled clouds, I saw a large, indistinct shape near the top of a bare-limbed pecan tree several yards away from where I was walking. Through binoculars, a vividly colored Red-shouldered Hawk came into view, its breast a blur of sunset-red, its wings ink-black and patterned with white, looking especially bright against the murky background of milky-gray sky and tangled limbs. It sat still, not moving much, just turning its head now and then, but sort of hunched down or its shoulders drawn up, so that it looked more round in shape than usual.

In the same bare tree, apparently no more than a couple of feet away from the hawk – though the distance was hard to judge – was one small Downy Woodpecker that called pink! repeatedly, and hopped up and down and from place to place in the limbs and branches around the hawk in a somewhat aimless fashion. It pecked at a branch now and then, but not with any real focus, not as if it were foraging seriously, and mostly just kept moving around, often pausing and standing with its head held sharply up – and all the time staying very close to the hawk, which seemed to ignore it.

The little woodpecker – looking insect-like beside the big sturdy hawk – did not dive at the hawk or harass it, though sometimes it came closer to it, and sometimes further away, turning its back. It continued to call constantly and sharply, in what seemed to be an agitated way – but it did not fly away or try to hide.

A small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew over, making high, thin, sharp calls. A Ruby-crowned Kinglet stuttered somewhere in a row of cedars. A White-throated Sparrow sang. Several loose-knit groups of blackbirds streamed across the sky behind the hawk, heading southeast, as they always do at this time of day.

After ten minutes or more of watching, I had taken my binoculars down for a moment to rest, when I saw the hawk lean over and stretch out, and I put them back up just as it spread its wings and flew. It came toward me and over, with its legs hanging down, and something held in its talons. It flew through the cedars beyond me and into the low, bare limbs of another tree where it perched again, but where I could no longer see it well.

I don’t know if it’s likely, but I wondered if maybe the Red-shouldered Hawk had caught another Downy Woodpecker and been holding it all this time. Could the one that stayed beside it in the tree have been a mate, distressed? This is purely speculation on my part. There may have been another, entirely different explanation for the scene. Red-shouldered Hawks are known to take some small birds, but small mammals like chipmunks are more commonly their prey, while Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks are known to be predators of Downies. But Red-shouldered Hawks are woodland raptors, known for their ability to maneuver with amazing skill through the trees, and we have lots of Downy Woodpeckers in this wooded neighborhood, so it doesn’t seem too farfetched. I’ll never know for sure. But it was interesting.


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