For ten months, I have been posting pictures to our neighborhood association’s Listserv of resident and migrating birds visiting our yard. My intentions have been fourfold: 1) To do something, hopefully meaningful, with my new-found free time from sheltering-in-place and moving my office to our front porch and avoiding Atlanta commute time. 2) For neighbors that did not have much contact with nature growing up, raise their awareness of the nature just outside their front and back doors. And, somewhat pretentiously I know, encourage transitioning their ‘nature awokeness’ from interest to practical conservation and protection practices in their yards (e.g., back-off pesticides and insecticides and manicuring every inch) 3) For neighbors that are already avid birdwatchers, simply share comradery. 4) Practice and experiment with techniques and settings and new gear before returning to more far flung travels.
If any neighbors and friends discover this blog, I hope you don’t find number 2 overt patronizing or covert mansplaining.
I have had a nice reception to the posts, including some complimentary replies which I readily admit to liking. Replies that I enjoy most are the ones that indicate the neighbor’s interest and delight in learning about close-by nature. Some of these replies have transitioned from expressions of interest to actions – installing feeders, buying binoculars and field guides, building natural leaf litter islands, and questioning if the neighborhood should ban gas leaf blowers. This I really like.
There has been another kind of reception that I find intriguing. These are in response to perceptions to just how much wildness is acceptable. Most are in response to posts about the predators that share our little slice of urban ecosystem with cute ‘birbs’. It seems that there is a fear of the wild that is propelled by myths that nature is a dangerous place. These dark side of nature myths seem to be particularly accepted by people with little time experiencing the outdoors and knowledge the experiences bring. These people are most of us. Americans spend only a little less than 8% of their time outdoors.
As an example, in a conversation with a neighbor about my photos of a nesting pair of Red-tailed Hawks in our neighborhood, she mentioned that member on the Decatur Next Door forum had reported a huge hawk attacking a dog. It should be noted that most of these wildlife gone wild reports are almost always second or third hand. I don’t know the details of this particular report because I don’t subscribe to Next Door, for a number of reasons, so my response was more cavalier than it should have been (I called BS). There may very well have been an encounter. I wasn’t calling BS on that. My response was to the alleged severity and danger.
“Hawk Attacks Dog” stories like this circulate periodically. They are great for headlines. They are also highly suspect by birders. Not just because birders have a cult-like parental defense of birds, but also because the attacks are in fact very rare. Especially the ones that involve the hawk flying off and eating the dog (or cat for that matter).
‘Huge’ hawks, like our neighborhood pair of Red-tails shown above, weigh on average less than 3 lbs: females ~2.7 & males ~2.3. Red-shouldereds, the other large hawk we see, weigh less, about 1.5 lbs. They are essentially all feathers and hollow bones. They don’t like to take on prey that weighs more than them because they can’t physically lift it off the ground and back to a tree perch to consume (often whole in 1 bite). They will eat some prey on the ground, but it’s not often because they instinctively feel vulnerable to attack by thieves such as other scavengers (foxes, coyotes, black vultures), bigger raptors (great-horned owls, eagles), or harassment by their age-old nemesis crows (crows can make hawks’ and owls’ lives miserable). They very often will use ‘mantling’, i.e., covering the prey, it order to hide it from thieves. This works best if the prey fits under the hawk. This all adds up to a preference for high-efficiency, safe kills of animals smaller than them. A Gray Squirrel weighs ~1.3 lbs. Better yet, Voles at 1.5 oz, plentiful. & no sharp claws or teeth, are a favorite meal as are rats.
This is not to say hawks never attack dogs or cats. Hawks are aggressive protectors of nest sites and their young, especially Red-taileds. When their nestlings start to fledge and are at times on the ground, the parents will attack attackers or perceived attackers, including us. These are very rare and most attackees retreat poste haste with no harm no foul, but a great story to post on social media. It is understandably attention getting and anxiety fuel. When a hawk’s wings are fully extended, their feathers all puffed out, and their talons extended they do indeed look huge and fierce. It is the stuff of nightmares for a species, i.e., us, that in evolution time was very recently prey.