Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Blakeman on Redtails in the Rain - Q&A

Bob Brooks, a Central Park birdwatcher, sent in the following question:

Is there any truth to the following statement? A nature writer from Maine wrote it.

"I've noticed, for example, that squirrels feed en masse on rainy and drizzly days, making me wonder if they perceive that hawks, being so soft-feathered, aren't apt to be hunting in wet weather."

Here is what John Blakeman answered:

No, I don't think squirrels are instinctive about feeding safely en masse on rainy days, to lessen hawk attacks. Any squirrel that feeds with this presumption (on the thought that squirrels actually cerebrally ponder such questions -- they don't) is likely to be lethally surprised. Red-tailed hawks hunt very effectively in wet weather. They may have "soft" feathers, but they preen and oil them diligently and the birds are seldom "soaked." In light rain, red-tails have no predatory inhibitions whatsoever. In such conditions water rolls off their feathers as it does on a duck.

Only in episodic drenching, windy downpours will a red-tail's feathers get saturated. When this happens, the hawk is often seen sitting after the rainstorm with its wings slightly open and outstretched. This tends to occur, I think, most often in first year birds. Old adults have enough sense to keep oiled and preened, just as Lola did during New York's recent bout of heavy weather.

Actually, woodland squirrels are seldom attacked by red-tails. Hawks don't express much selective power on squirrel populations Squirrels are not a preferred food. Their skin is very tough, and the big rodents can bite very severely. Red-tails surely take squirrels, as is so often seen with the Central Park hawks. But in larger, more typical rural red-tail territories, bushy-tails are taken only infrequently. From my experiences of watching my trained falconry red-tails hunt in rainy weather, I think any squirrel that believes it's safer out on wet days is a bit deluded. Sounds like a bit of typical hawk (or squirrel) mythology -- of which there is still a preponderance.

Speaking of which, I could quickly "de-ingratiate" myself to many here were I to debunk the most common bit of popular hawk mythology, one believed by even many professionals who should know better. It's the question of whether or not wild hawks control vermin. The discussion on this would surely get pretty heated -- but who here would let emotion get in the way of ecological truth? Anyone interested?


John A. Blakeman