A Sense of Place: Birding in the Fast-Food LaneBy D. Scott Shultz
High above me in the overcast sky, spinning tighter and tighter circles, a female peregrine falcon closes the gap on a terrified common grackle. The falcon throws out her talon-tipped foot once, twice. The third time convinces the hapless grackle that gravity is his friend. Folding his wings, he tips over and plummets, still dodging attacks from the peregrine. They drop to earth in seconds and vanish behind the Target Store at Interstate 494 and France Avenue.
The Target Store?
Perhaps the lunch-time shoppers were amused by (or wary of) the sight of a bearded bear of a birdwatcher, binoculars glued to his eyes, turning circles in the parking lot. But while they worried about the price of paper towels (or the parking-lot lunatic), I witnessed the savage drama of nature played out above an asphalt stage.
Yanking the binoculars from my eyes, I jumped into my truck, almost on top of my forgotten Burger King Value Meal, and raced to the scene. I searched for evidence of the outcome of the sky chase. Finding none, I returned to the edge of the parking lot to finish my lunch. As I chewed the last bite, I glanced out the side window and saw the falcon winging my way. I eased out of the truck and stood stone still as she crossed directly in front of me, 10 feet above the lot. She headed for the distant Norwest Bank tower and disappeared.
In March my wife and I took our dog for a walk early one morning. The rhythmic drip of melting snow and the crisp scent of evergreens transported us to the North Woods. Ten minutes into our trek, we spied a male Cooper's hawk zinging his way through still-naked maple and elm trees. He landed in a tall spruce and disappeared among the dense needles. Around the next bend, I spotted a silhouette near the top of a pine. As the bird turned to study us, I saw the hooked beak and larger-than-crow size of a female Cooper's. Meanwhile, the male had returned to the air, flying courtship circles above the tree canopy, kakking in full voice.
"I bet they're going to nest near here!" I told my wife.
"Near here" was, in fact, a residential neighborhood with a smattering of deciduous and coniferous trees in each yard, located just south of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Not what the field guides would call typical nesting territory for a shy woodland hawk. Perhaps it is time to revise the field guides.
One summer evening a freshening breeze drew my wife and me out for a leisurely walk around our neighborhood near the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul. As we neared two teenagers tossing a Frisbee, a juvenile male Cooper's hawk rocketed past them at knee level and directly in front of us. He headed down the side street, crossed two front lawns, then shot up near the top of a cottonwood. We jogged to the tree and studied the hawk, while he ignored us.
Dusk was gathering, and this bird was seriously hunting: His head swiveled and jerked left, right, center, then right again. Starlings had flocked to a few cedar trees to our right. All their quarreling and jockeying for the best perch had revealed their hiding spot. Then, as the hawk launched from his perch, the cedars fell silent as a green tomb.
Like a brown-and-white fletched arrow, the hawk shot through the curtain of cedar branches. Starlings bailed out in all directions. They fled in twos and threes, flying hard and emitting terrified squeals.
We could hear movement in the dense foliage, wings slapping branches, talons scraping bark. Suddenly a starling shot out with a chocolate-brown streak hot on its tail. Predator and prey disappeared behind the houses, and we could only guess the outcome.
Seeing a hawk in action--that is, in hot pursuit of its dinner--is the true reward for an urban raptor watcher. The secret recipe to doing this successfully, I have found, is this: First, do not expect to see it; and second, keep your eyes on the prey species.
The actions of a lone gull first alerted me to the Target Store peregrine. Perched on a light pole, calmly surveying the sea of asphalt and automobiles, the gull abruptly snapped to attention. Pulling its feathers in tight, it swiveled its head to gaze skyward. I looked skyward too, and spotted the peregrine descending on the grackle.
Another surprise sighting occurred at a park in south Minneapolis. While snacking on a Wendy's Big Classic before my evening class, I was watching the antics of a gray squirrel as it scavenged from a trash barrel. In an instant the squirrel froze, then dashed to a nearby tree. Within seconds, a red-tailed hawk made a pass at the base of the tree, apparently trying to flush the squirrel. The wise squirrel scrambled to the lee side and hugged the bark. The redtail swept up to the top of a tree 30 feet away. She sat with her back to the rodent but watched over her shoulder for any sly escape attempts. Eventually a passing bicyclist spooked the hawk, and the squirrel was free to scavenge again.
Perhaps a third "ingredient" to successful urban hawk watching is this: Eat fast food. Three summers ago I kept track of a pair of red-tailed hawks nesting on a utility tower near a bustling Burger King off Interstate 35W at County Road C. I watched them build a partial nest, then rebuild it on the tower's next higher cross arm. I checked their progress daily as I hurried to work. On weekends I watched them feed a single, rapidly growing chick, while I gorged on a Whopper with cheese.
One morning as I was wolfing down an Egg McMuffin in a parking lot near downtown St. Paul, I watched a flock of starlings feeding on the ground. A group of robins perched in ornamental trees nearby. Suddenly both species took to the wind, and I knew a cruising raptor was near. A mere three seconds later, a female sharp-shinned hawk--a smaller version of the Cooper's hawk--came cruising over the spot where the starlings had been feeding. She rose and fell over the contours of the land, probably hoping to flush any stragglers, but the starlings were long gone.
Other noteworthy city bird sightings: A red-tailed hawk atop a field light at Midway Stadium watching most of the fifth inning of a St. Paul Saints baseball game. An adult bald eagle flying at treetop level over the College of St. Catherine campus escorted by a few hostile crows. An adult peregrine grabbing one of a trio of pigeons as they flew parallel to the Lafayette Bridge. And on two occasions, a grackle--a nonraptor--chasing and catching a house sparrow.
My favorite urban raptor viewing began in March 1995 in Fridley. The weather was unseasonably tolerable, and I had taken to eating my lunch in the library parking lot. Munching Taco Bell tacos in the delightful ambiance of my truck, I heard the enraged squawking of several crows--a fairly reliable "raptor-sighting alert." Stepping out of the truck, I watched their careening flight. Then, there she was: a female Cooper's hawk, cruising the edge of a woodlot, casually fending off the crows' half-hearted attacks. She was soon out of sight, and I returned to my lunch.
Before I had finished my second taco, she returned and landed on a decrepit squirrel nest. She began rearranging a few sticks atop the nest, and I realized she would be nesting there. Because I worked only three miles away, I made plans to eat lunch in the lot on a regular basis.
According to most literature, the Cooper's is an uncommon and secretive bird-catching hawk, at home in mixed deciduous and coniferous forests. What was this bird doing in a tiny woodlot 300 yards from a big shopping mall and 15 yards from a busy library parking lot?
Two weeks later I deduced that the pair was in full incubation mode, and I expanded my research time to include the hour before work. The female, often only visible by her long striped tail protruding over the nest edge, would leave the nest only when the male arrived. As soon as she left--leaping and free-falling for a split second before turning on her rapid-fire wings--the male settled down for his turn at incubation.
One morning I spied a gray squirrel working its way up the nest tree. When it had climbed to a spot directly below the nest, the female stood up. The squirrel shot up an adjacent branch, barely a foot from the nest, and the female rushed at it. The squirrel scampered back to its hideout below. A moment passed, and it went back up. Foolishness or bravado overtook the squirrel this time: It crested the edge of the nest and leaped in! Of course, it instantly leaped back out, followed by the female. This time she flew after the squirrel at breakneck speed, footing at it and just barely missing. Twenty feet down, she slammed to a stop on a branch and watched the squirrel descend, then returned to her nest and settled in.
The squirrel was actually climbing up again when the male hawk arrived. This time the rodent scrambled all the way down and disappeared. The stress of the squirrel's visit must have flustered the female, for she refused to relinquish the nest to her mate.
I changed employers before the chicks left the nest and had to wish the Cooper's family the best of luck. My research grounds moved to the east side of St. Paul--the Wendy's on Maryland Avenue, the Hardee's on Rice Street, and, of course, the McDonald's on University. I did see a pair of ospreys once, over McCarrons Lake on Rice Street--by the Taco Bell and Burger King.
D. Scott Shultz, St. Paul, is a free-lance writer and an architectural model builder. He invites other amateur naturalists who spot hawks in unusual perches to contact him via e-mail: email@example.com.