Category Archives: Birds of Prey

Fire Hawks

Hawks circle a bushfire in Australia as they hunt for escaping prey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 December 2021

Fire is a way of life in Australia where bushfires rage during the dry season and humans set controlled burns during the rest of the year. Australia’s indigenous people, the Aborigines, use fire as a tool on the landscape to “facilitate hunting, change the composition of plant and animal species in an area, reduce [wildfire] hazards, and increase biodiversity.”

Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Every living thing on the continent has adapted to fire including three species of raptors in northern Australia that hover over active firefronts to capture prey escaping from the flames (at top). Sometimes the prey hides too effectively so the firehawks carry burning sticks to set new fires and flush the prey.

The hawks’ behavior, unique to Australia, was reported in a 2017 study in the Journal of Ethnobiology: Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia which said:

We document Indigenous Ecological Knowledge and non-Indigenous observations of intentional fire-spreading by the fire-foraging raptors Black Kite (Milvus migrans), Whistling Kite (Haliastur sphenurus), and Brown Falcon (Falco berigora) in tropical Australian savannas. Observers report both solo and cooperative attempts, often successful, to spread wildfires intentionally via single-occasion or repeated transport of burning sticks in talons or beaks. This behavior, often represented in sacred ceremonies, is widely known to local people in the Northern Territory, where we carried out ethno-ornithological research from 2011 to 2017; it was also reported to us from Western Australia and Queensland.

— Bonta, M. et al. (2017). Intentional Fire-Spreading by “Firehawk” Raptors in Northern Australia. Journal of Ethnobiology, 37(4), 700-718.

The behavior is so uncommon that seeing it is often a once in a lifetime experience. The observer must be in front of the fireline, watching the controlled burn (as shown below) as a hawk picks up a burning stick. Needless to say there are no photos of the behavior yet, but there are many eyewitnesses especially among the Aborigines who have tended fires for thousands of years.

Controlled burn of grasslands in Australia (photo by MomentsForZen via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Who was the firehawk that tried it first among the three species?

The black kite (Milvus migrans),

Black kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the whistling kite (Haliastur sphenurus) whose whistle sounds like this … and…

Whistling kite (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

the brown falcon (Falco berigora).

The firehawks add a complication to fire management in northern Australia. Read more in Australian “firehawk” raptors intentionally spread fires at Nature.org.

p.s. I note with pleasure that the principal author of the study is Mark Bonta, son of Marcia & Bruce Bonta of Plummer’s Hollow, PA. Marcia Bonta is a great nature writer who wrote for the PA Game News for 28 years and retired this month. Her Farewell on 1 Dec 2021 is here.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, Australia fire season map from Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology; click on the captions to see the originals)

Quick Quiz for a Friday

3 December 2021

QUICK QUIZ: Name the two birds of prey pictured in these tweets. Leave a comment with your answer.

(The hawk tweet below is from September.)

(tweets by @geococcyxcal and @GetToKnowNature)

P.S. Everyone’s getting the answers right. Check the comments.

Virgin Mary Vultures?

California condor (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

10 November 2021

Sometimes DNA tests reveal more than anyone thought possible.

In 1987 when California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) were close to extinction the California Condor Recovery Plan established a captive breeding program that resulted in 518 condors in the wild as of 2019. Built into the program are routine DNA tests of condor offspring to make sure they will not be inbred. When scientists in San Diego performed paternal analysis of two recent captive offspring they were in for a surprise. The two had no fathers even though male condors were present. The mothers hatched viable eggs without mating. Were they Virgin Mary Vultures?

Well, not really. In Christian and Muslim theology the Virgin Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit while still a virgin. These mother condors used asexual reproduction, parthenogenesis, to produce viable youngsters.

Female California condor with 30-day-old chick (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

As Wikipedia explains, parthenogenesis occurs naturally in some plants, some invertebrate animals, and a few vertebrates including some fish, amphibians, reptiles and very rarely birds. But not in mammals. There are no known cases of naturally occurring mammalian parthenogenesis in the wild. If it happened the offspring would be female.

Parthenogenesis is incredibly rare in birds. KPBS describes how they found it in San Diego.

Does asexual reproduction ever happen among wild birds? We will never know.

Learn more about Parthenogenesis here. Read the published study at Facultative Parthenogenesis in California Condors.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from KPBS)

New Bird in Town?

Black vulture in Cartagena, Columbia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

13 October 2021

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are unusual in western Pennsylvania but may show up in low numbers outside the breeding season, especially in the Ohio valley. If you’re not used to what they look like you’ll want some tips on identifying this “rare” bird.

When perched, adult vultures are easy to tell apart by the color of their heads. Black vultures have gray heads. Adult turkey vultures have red heads. But oops! juvenile turkey vultures have gray heads so you’ll need other clues.

In flight …

Black and turkey vultures compared in flight (image from NPS.gov, annotated)

Black vultures have:

  • All black feathers with grayish white wing tips like white gloves.
  • Short square tails, only as long as their legs.
  • Gray legs visible against their dark tails from below.
  • Flap a lot between soaring bouts, especially when trying to gain altitude. Flap-flap-flap-flap-flap-flap Soar…Soar…Soar… flap-flap-flap-flap-flap.
  • Steady when soaring, not teetering.

Turkey vultures have:

  • Two-tone wings, brownish black at the leading edge, gray at the trailing edge.
  • Tails longer than their legs.
  • Red head.
  • Turkey vultures refuse to flap! When they do flap it is one huge bow like a great blue heron.
  • Soar in an obvious dihedral V while teetering back and forth. V is for Vulture.

Here are two more flight shots. Can you tell who’s who?

(photo from Wikimedia Commons)
(photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, I don’t think turkey vultures will stand on cars, but black vultures will. Sometimes they get bored and damage rubber seals or vinyl on trucks and SUVs, especially at boat ramps. Bob Kroeger took this photo at Conowingo in March 2020. He was glad this was not his car.

Don’t worry. This doesn’t happen in Pittsburgh.

Black vultures on a minivan roof, Conowingo, March 2020 (photo by Bob Kroeger)

(photos by Bob Kroeger and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the wiki captions to see the originals)

What do Ospreys have in common with Golden Retrievers?

Golden retriever at the beach (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

31 August 2021

When dogs get wet they shake it off.

So do ospreys.

It’s a bit trickier to shake off in the air.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons, video embedded from YouTube, tweet embedded from @marktakesphoto)

Peregrines up, Goshawks down

Peregrine falcon mother feeding chicks, Ohio, 2020 (photo by Chad+Chris Saladin)

4 August 2021

“The Pennsylvania Board of Game Commissioners today gave preliminary approval to remove the peregrine falcon from the state’s threatened species list and place the northern goshawk on the state’s endangered-species list.” — PA Game Commission Press Release, 24 July 2021

In Pennsylvania peregrines are up, goshawks are down.

Peregrine falcons (Falco peregrinus) went extinct east of the Mississippi in the 1960’s due to the long lasting effects of DDT. When the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1972 peregrines were among the first to be added to the list. Pennsylvania had gone from 44 nesting pairs to none.

Peregrine falcon at Gull Point, Presque Isle State Park, 2012 (photo by Steve Gosser)

Thanks to the Peregrine Recovery Program, captive-bred peregrines were released in the eastern U.S. in the 1970s through 1990s. The descendants of those birds thrive in new places, including Pittsburgh, in cities and on man-made structures. There are now 73 nesting pairs in Pennsylvania and their population is secure. Their recovery took 50 years.

Peregrine falcon Dorothy at the Cathedral of Learning, Pittsburgh, June 2012 (photo by Peter Bell)

In my lifetime peregrine falcons went from extinct in Pennsylvania to my very own Yard Bird. What a happy day!

Unfortunately the news is not happy for northern goshawks (Accipiter gentilis) a shy, fierce raptor of the northern woods. Goshawks are so shy in the U.S. that human presence in their nesting zone can cause the nest to fail. (They are not as shy in Europe, photo below.)

Northern goshawk, Netherlands, 2018 (photo by Martha de Jong-Lantink via Flickr Creative Commons license)

Goshawks have experienced range contraction and a dramatic population decline in Pennsylvania in the past 20 years. Though never plentiful, I haven’t seen one since 2018 and that was in Newfoundland, Canada.

Northern goshawk on nest, Kaibab National Forest, Arizona, 2009 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Classifying the northern goshawk as an endangered species would further protect it by limiting or delaying certain activities within northern goshawk breeding habitat during courtship and nesting seasons.” — PA Game Commission Press Release, 24 July 2021

I look forward to a brighter future for the northern goshawk.

Approval of the peregrine’s and goshawk’s status will be brought to a final vote at the PA Game Commissioners’ September 2021 meeting.

For more information read this Trib-Live article by Mary Ann Thomas and the PA Game Commission 24 July 2021 press release.

(photos by Chad+Chris Saladin, Steve Gosser, Peter Bell, Martha de Jong-Lantink and Wikimedia Commons; click on the linked captions to see the originals)

Who Is The King of Birds?

Bald eagle, female at Hays, 24 July 2021 (photo by Theo Lodge)

2 August 2021

Many would say the bald eagle is the king of birds but when it comes to attitude, actions and name the small songbird attacking this eagle is both King and Tyrant.

Eastern kingbird attacks bald eagle, Hays, 24 July 2021 (photo by Theo Lodge)

Attitude: The eastern kingbird is often fierce and angry. This one is showing the orange-red crest he keeps hidden beneath his head feathers until he’s very, very mad.

Eastern kingbird (photo by Andy Reago and Chrissy McClarren from Wikimedia Commons)

Actions: Eastern kingbirds relentlessly defend their territories and will (obviously) ride the backs of hawks and eagles to peck their heads. 

Males and sometimes females are very aggressive in territorial disputes [with other kingbirds], often resorting to aerial fights in which they lock feet together, pull out each other’s feathers, and sometimes fall to the ground. Eastern Kingbirds also attack large nest predators like crows and Blue Jays. Such aggression has been shown to increase their breeding success.

from Eastern Kingbird account, All About Birds

In late July when Theo Lodge took the attack photo, the kingbird was ensuring a successful breeding season by defending his “kids.” The juveniles look like adults now except for yellow mouths.

Juvenile eastern kingbird, 23 July 2013 (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And so the eastern kingbird earned the common name of king and a scientific name, Tyrannus tyrannus, that doubles up on tyrant.

Enjoy them now in Pittsburgh. They’ll be gone by early September.

(eagle photos by Theo Lodge, kingbird photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Juvenile Hawks Cry Wolf

Juvenile red-tailed hawks in Schenley Park (photo by Jim Funderburgh)
Juvenile red-tailed hawks in Schenley Park, 2019 (photo by Jim Funderburgh)

28 July 2021

Have you heard this pathetic sound recently?

If you track it down you’ll find a young red-tailed hawk, possibly on the ground, calling as if it is in distress. There may be two of them walking around, jumping down from a perch, looking at their feet, and making the most heart-rending sounds. Despite their tone these juvenile hawks are not hurt. They are crying wolf.

In late July young red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) in southwestern Pennsylvania have been out of the nest for four to eight weeks. Their parents have taught them everything they need to know about capturing and killing prey but they lack experience. To gain it their parents drop them off at a fertile hunting ground and leave for the day. Their parents will return with food, but not right away.

Left alone the youngsters play at catching prey (video below) and progress from hunting insects and invertebrates to capturing small mammals. It takes weeks to make this kind of progress and they won’t do it if their parents are nearby.

Juvenile red-tailed hawks in Schenley Park, 2019 (photo by Jim Funderburgh)

Like any kids, they get impatient when it goes slowly and whine as loudly as possible. Sometimes they perch prominently to do it. “Come back! I want food now!”

Don’t worry when you hear or see a “distressed” juvenile red-tailed hawk. It’s crying wolf.

(photos and video of two hawks by Jim Funderburgh, video of one hawk by Christopher Booth on YouTube)

Hays Eaglets Growing Up

23 April 2021

The three youngsters in the Hays bald eagle nest have grown a lot in the weeks since they hatched on March 23 and 27. Their white natal down has been replaced by gray second down and they are showing pin feathers, the precursor to flight feathers and juvenile plumage.

On Wednesday 21 April they were glad to see food arrive. It was cold and there was snow on the nest.

You won’t see snow next Tuesday. Our high is forecast for 82 degrees F!

Watch the Hays eaglets grow on ASWP’s Hays Bald Eagle Nestcam.

p.s. This morning a squirrel is active below the nest while the adult eagles try to shoo it away. This squirrel probably doesn’t realize he could become lunch.

(photo and video from ASWP’s Hays Bald Eagle Nestcam)