Wednesday, January 4, 2012

CSI: Pigeon Town

Not the bird from last week, a young Cooper's Hawk from a nearby park last winter.
About mid-morning last Friday, while I was working at my desk in the back of the house, I heard a crow in the front yard screeching his displeasure at something.  It went on for several minutes, and I thought about going out to see what was bothering him -- following the lead of agitated crows usually leads to something interesting -- but this was only one crow, not a mob, and I was focused on the blog post I was writing, so I didn't get up.  A few minutes later my roommate Dan called me, from the front yard.  He had just gotten home, and he was whispering into his cell phone, "Dude, get the camera.  There's a small hawk in the tree outside.  Hurry."

I got the camera (which is not stored conveniently on the table by the door any more, since my dog Zeke decided to chew up one of my lenses) but by the time I got to the window, the hawk had noticed Dan and taken off.  I didn't get to see him.  However, Dan paged through the field guide and quickly identified him as a Cooper's Hawk.  That made sense, because I know there are Cooper's Hawks in this area.  I've seen them more than once in the park where I take Zeke to play.  I was mildly disappointed that I didn't get to see him myself, since I've never actually seen a hawk in our yard.

A few hours later, we were getting ready to go shopping, and Dan took the dogs out before we left.  I followed him a few minutes later and he told me, "Don't look over the side rail.  There's been a death."
My first thought was that it must be one of the rats that live under the fence.  I haven't seen them in a while, and I've been a little worried about what happened to them.  But unfortunately, this was a death that hit even closer to home.

It was one of the pigeons.

Anyone who reads my blog probably knows that I am fond of pigeons.  I take care of the little collection of "misfit" pigeons who hang out in this neighborhood -- mostly because they are centered around Timmy.  I have a history with Timmy, and feel some responsibility for him.  And I enjoy watching the pigeons when they come to eat (and often squabble) on my front deck.  They don't hang around here otherwise -- even Timmy has stopped hanging around much other than mealtimes -- so they aren't a nuisance to me or the neighbors.  I often see them perched on the power lines behind the house, watching.  When I put food down they begin to swoop in.
The "victim", fortunately, was not Timmy or Timmy's Friend.

The dead pigeon was not Timmy, or "Timmy's Friend".  (You can see my earlier posts about Timmy and the other pigeons here and here.)  In fact, judging by the wing patterns, it wasn't a pigeon I was familiar with.  I examined the body and the "crime scene" -- and I took lots of photos, which I'm going to spare my readers, since they are pretty gruesome.  Suffice it to say that the pigeon was apparently eating on the rail when it was attacked.  It looks like it was killed almost instantly, because it was on the ground just below the rail.  Its head was gone, and its crop was still filled with undigested seed which it had obviously just eaten.  There were blood and feathers around the body, and more at another spot a few feet away, under the stairs.

My first thought was that a cat was the culprit.  There are occasionally free roaming cats in our neighborhood, and any bird lover has to be concerned.  I put off bird feeding for many years because the area I used to live in -- Ballard -- was full of feral and semi-feral cats.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-cat.  But I am anti-outdoor cats.  At the wildlife center where I volunteer, a very large percentage of all the animal injuries that come in -- especially birds -- are cat attacks.  Outdoor cats are an environmental horror story.  But I'll come back to that in a later post.

It didn't even occur to me, at first, that the Hawk killed the pigeon.  But of course, that was the most likely scenario.  So I sent my crime scene photos off to my friend Kevin, who's the staff naturalist at Paws WildlifeCenter.  Here's what he said:

"From looking at the photos of the pigeon, I would say you are looking at the work of a hawk, rather than the work of a cat.  First of all, it looks like the pigeon’s tail and rump feathers are intact.  In almost all cat attacks you will see wounds over the rump and missing tail feathers because the cat attacks from behind as the bird tries to fly away.  Hawks usually hit much farther forward on the body.  Once they have a good grip on their prey, they kill it by biting through one of the cervical vertebrae at the back of the neck.  They then tend to eat from the head down.  Hawks pluck the feathers from the area in which they wish to feed.  This leaves a scattered pile of loose but completely intact feathers.  Cats bite into birds right through the feathers. Feathers are generally pulled away in clumps, usually with skin still attached, and the feathers themselves are often broken or otherwise damaged.  The loose feathers around this pigeon’s body all look like they have been individually plucked, again indicating a hawk rather than a cat."
Sad news.  But on the other hand, I had a Cooper's Hawk lunching in my yard.


If you like Birdland West, you might also want to check out our sister blog Books and Beasts, which focuses on reviews of books about animals and related topics.

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