Wednesday, March 02, 2005


I forwarded JB the following letter from Kellie Quinones:

Hi Marie,

This is what I saw:

Pale Male was perching on a balcony two buildings away from his nest
site when Jay and I saw him swooping down towards the nw side of the
pond. He dropped his legs as he got closer to the ground,
but unfortunately, because he flew so low and there were so many people
around, we were unable to see him grab the pigeon. We went to the area
where we last saw him drop and found him perched with a pigeon in his
talons on a tree that was only about 8 - 10 feet above the ground.

After about 5 minutes he flew to one tree and then another, where he
proceeded to pull out the pigeon's feathers. Pale Male took a couple of
gulps of meat and started calling. He then flew way up overhead and
started circling over the boat pond with the pigeon in his talons.

I hope this helps.

Kellie Q.

Here is John Blakeman's response:

This description of Pale Male nailing a pigeon, at least in this one case, appears to be exactly what I envisioned. The fact that the bird folded its wings and dropped close to the ground is just the strategy I'd use to get a NYC pigeon as it fed on the ground, were I a red-tailed hawk.

As I pointed out before, pigeons are very fast fliers and can completely out fly any big red-tail in open sky. But while the pigeon is on the ground, it's completely vulnerable. When it sees an approaching hawk it will instantly jump into the sky and accelerate. In just 5 - 8 ft it will be nearly at full speed and pulling away from a pursuing red-tail.

But the pigeon's escape depends upon its ability to first see the approaching hawk. I think Pale Male and all of his urban cohorts have slyly learned to shoot at good speed low across the landscape, swinging around bushes, benches, and other visually obscuring landscape features in such a way that the target pigeons aren't able to discern the approaching killer hawk.

You know that I somewhat castigated the native intelligence of the red-tail. A crow or raven they are not. But I also pointed out that their intelligence in hunting was supreme. This account was an indication of this. The hapless pigeon was grabbed at 45 mph before it could get three feet into the air, perhaps while it was still on the ground looking for some last proffered grain morsel -- its very last.

The role of humans feeding pigeons may be crucial to the entire phenomenon. If the pigeons weren't lured to the ground by such food, they would probably never be at risk.

This was a single hunting incident. I want to learn the details of many others. Do our hawks use this single hunting technique, what I'll call here the ground-skimming ambush, or are there others?

This is now starting to make some sense to me. (But how do they capture rats?)

By the way, lest anyone begin to question any sense of morbid thought here, what we are observing and reacting to is a very normal, albeit sometimes gruesome, natural activity of these avian predators. I want to assure everyone that I personally, and raptor biologists and falconers in general, take absolutely no pleasure in observing the death of even so much as a pigeon or rat. Is the pursuing flight thrilling and exciting? It surely is. Is the death of the captured prey exciting in any way? Surely not. The greatest hope of all is that each prey animal might die as quickly and painlessly as possible. None of us delights in the death of any animal, predator or prey. But to deny the essential presence of this primal natural event is to deny the natural reality we are observing. For the hawk, the capturing of a pigeon means another meal. It means that life continues. For the plundered pigeon, its life has been sacrificed to that of the hawk. It's raw nature of the most elemental kind. Consider it all thoughtfully and seriously.


John A. Blakeman