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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy


By Phil Plait

[Just a note: if you're not a fan of nature documentaries because they sometimes show nature being natural -- specifically, predators eating prey -- then you might want to skip this post.]

This morning I was at my computer, just settling down with my coffee and a ton of emails to get through, when the dogs started barking upstairs. It wasn't their usual "Alert! Alert! The neighbors are outside!" or "Wake up! A truck drove by!" bark -- it was urgent and non-stop. Wondering what it could be, I got up, walked over to the back door, and HOLY CRAP THERE'S A HAWK EATING ANOTHER BIRD THREE METERS FROM MY DOOR!

I grabbed the dogs, threw them in the bedroom, hastily told my wife what was happening, ran back to my office to grab the camera, and took about a hundred shots.


[Click to accipiterenate.]

I have some software that helps identify birds, and it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to figure out what kind of hawk is what. My best guess is that this is a Sharp-shinned hawk, judging from the tail coloration and the plumage. The software says they can have blue-gray upper parts, but all the pictures I see look like this fierce raptor, with red-brown striped feathers. It's definitely not a Red-tailed hawk. [UPDATE: in the comments a lot of folks seem to be converging on it being a Cooper's hawk. I looked at some photos, and it does match.]

The bird it was eating was also hard to identify from a distance (especially given the circumstances). At first I thought it was a gull; we get them around here at dumps and reservoirs. However, once the hawk left and I got the privilege of cleaning up (yuck; there were feathers everywhere) I could see it was a common white pigeon.

Here are a couple of more shots, which I'll put after the jump just in case some folks are squeamish. They aren't horribly gruesome, but might disturb more empathetic readers.


As the hawk fed, it kept looking around for what I assume were other predators. I opened the door and went outside for a clearer view, and it grabbed the pigeon and hopped/flew a little ways farther back in my yard.

This next picture is perhaps a bit indelicate, but I think it captures something important.


My wife and I feel bad for the pigeon, of course (she thought it was a baby owl at first, which made for a bad moment until I could confirm it wasn't). Still, the hawk has to eat. We see them all the time, flying overhead, or sitting imperiously in trees or on top of poles. They are quite simply magnificent animals, and I love seeing them patrolling their area. But to get as big as they do they have to feed a lot, and they are meat-eaters.

It's easy to get jaded living in the 'burbs sometimes... but not all that easy where we are. Besides hawks we have owls, foxes, and coyotes. At night, we hear the coyotes yipping and howling, sometimes rising in pitch and fervor until we hear some sort of odd scream, and then suddenly silence... and we wonder what poor creature had the bad timing to be in the prairie when the pack was out. And not far from here are mountain lions, and bears, too.

I love living here. It's gorgeous, and it's beautiful, and while it's sometimes red in tooth and claw, that's the real world.

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