Marco…Polo

I looked to the sky at just the right time. A Red-tailed hawk had just dived down to grab a live rat in its talons. She was ascending directly above me while I was walking Murray, our rescue mutt, in our neighborhood not far from Big Sur Land Trust open space.  What happened next was pretty cool.

Murray, 12 years old in a few months, didn’t mind stopping, having just crested a steep block.  I kept my head up, and his went down to investigate new smells. The hawk and the hawk’s chicks began a series of back and forth contact calls, a version of the popular swimming pool game, Marco Polo. In this case, calls help the adult find chicks eagerly awaiting their next meal. Red-tailed hawks co-parent so the adult could have been male or female.  I’ll go with “she.”

Her calls and the chicks’ return calls continued.  Then, another hawk that looked like a Red-shouldered hawk from the coloring in the wings’ undersides, zeroed in on mom from 100 yards away. The two adults looked to be sparring in the sky, looping around each other, diving in with a purpose, swooping away, then coming back at each other to re-engage. This looked dicey for the mom; if she used her talons, she’d lose the rat. She kept the rat and thwarted the attack.

A hawk rescued, rehabilitated, and released by the SPCA Wildlife Center.

Maybe it wasn’t much of a fight to begin with. It’s not common for Red-shouldered hawks to attack much larger Red-tailed hawks, so perhaps this one was taking advantage of the Red-tail’s weakened defense. I felt like I was watching aggressive actions, yet they also resembled aerial ballet or two planes doing trick flying in a show.

She made it to the nest unscathed, dropped off the prey, then turned the tables on her pursuer. It appeared to me that she wanted to engage and draw the Red-shouldered hawk far from the nest. The Red-shouldered hawk eventually tired or lost interest, then both raptors were out of sight a few seconds later. The entire encounter lasted two minutes tops.

SPCA supporters know we care for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.  We’re actually one of just a handful of SPCAs and humane societies nationwide, that cares for wildlife and this vital work that no one else takes on in Monterey County is made possible by donations.  During the fiscal year which just ended, we cared for 59 Red-tailed hawks and 20 Red-shouldered hawks. They come into our care after being hit by cars and ingesting rodenticides (usually secondary poisoning from ingesting poisoned rats). Occasionally birds are shot.

People ask if we ever encounter animals we’ve rehabilitated and released. It’s nearly impossible to know. The two I saw could have come into our care.  It’s not like a one-in-a-million chance. Maybe more like one in a thousand.

Still, those two minutes watching these hawks made our work and mission seem even more special.

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