Rockford winter raptor report
By Rod Myers, Naturalist
Rockford has birds of prey living throughout its neighborhoods this winter. My parents neighborhood, which is in the Sinnissippi Park area, has numerous species of hawks this winter. A resident pair of red-tailed hawks and Coopers hawks are seen on a daily basis. Ive seen a merlin there this winter and a sharp-shinned hawk. Ive also seen a merlin near Rural Street and Alpine Road.
Jim Larson, a resident in the Sinnissippi Park area, heard a great horned owl calling just a block from his house. They nest in his area, usually in an abandoned red-tailed hawk or Coppers hawk nest. The great horned owl lays its eggs in February and sometimes as early as January. The merlin and the sharp-shinned hawk are not Rockford residents; they are both winter visitors from the north. Of the two, the merlin is the less frequent winter visitor.
The merlin is a small, yet powerful, aggressive falcon that usually spends the winter on or near the East or West Coast. However, the number of them spending the winter in the Midwest is increasing.
Scott Caring has seen raptors in his Rockford neighborhood this winter. The list contains sharp-shinned hawk, great horned owl, barred owl, Coopers hawk, merlin and goshawk. The sharp-shinned, Coopers and goshawk are all accipiters, and all have comparatively long tails and short, rounded wings that makes them more agile when chasing birds, their main prey, through brushy and woodland areas.
Four Coopers hawks live in Scotts neighborhood, two adults and their offspring from last year. They feed mainly on smaller birds. Scott told of one hunting technique they use when trying to catch prey along a brushy, grassy fence line close to his dwelling.
After chasing small birds into the growth along the fence line, which consists of grasses, nightshade and wild grape, he said, the agile Coopers hunt on foot trying to snatch a frozen-from-fear bird. Coopers are good runners, and when working the fence line, they will actually walk through the fence back and forth like a weaver while half-beating their wings against the growth trying to flush out a meal. Sometimes they fly over the fence, just clearing it, only to crash into the vegetation growing along the other side of the fence. Then they repeat this behavior, crashing on the other side; then they hop the fence again and again, and so forth, til theyve hopped and crash-hunted a large section of fence.
An adult male goshawk hunts Scotts neighborhood. This is North Americas largest hawk at 26 inches. Twenty years ago, youd expect to see a goshawk wintering in Rockford about twice every 10 years when its main food supply, the ruffed grouse, was in the ebb of its 10-year population cycle. However, since 1992, theyve been seen every winter in Rockford. Goshawks breed throughout most of Canada, south through the U.S.s Northwest, through the Rockies south and into Mexico in a long, yet slim region of mountainous area. They also breed in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and northern New England. Scott says that goshawks mainly eat birds, but he has seen them take squirrels.
Several squirrels are missing tails, thanks to a goshawk in my neighborhood, Scott said. Those mammals were lucky and unlucky. Ive observed a goshawk waiting for a squirrel to use a high-line wire to get from one tree to the next. When hes past the point of no return, the hawk will attack it and, if he fails, he at least knocks the mammal to the ground. Even if the squirrel survives, theres a chance his tail ends up MIA.
Goshawks will kill crows, Scott added. Thats why crows hate them with a passion, and groups will never hesitate to chase a goshawk in an effort to remove it. As many as 100 will join in the chase. They pursue in a tightly compressed group flying high to keep tabs on the hawk because the goshawk is always two steps ahead. When pursued, the goshawk is fast and elusive. When cornered, though, they will strike back. Ive observed a big adult female cornered at Aldeen Park. The feisty goshawk had a dead crow in its deadly talons while striking at close crows with the other foot as 200 other mobbers cawed in incessant anger and anguish.
Its amazing how perceptive birds seem to disappear when goshawks are in the area. I watched a goshawk eat a squirrel; it took him an hour and a half. Perhaps it likes having an enduring fear-filled dining audience.
Scott has watched a male merlin hunt his neighborhood; he believes its roost is the East High School arboretum. Speaking of arboretums, Klehm has merlin, sharp-shinned hawks, Coopers hawks, and a goshawk hunting it.
By the way, Scott had two great horned owls mating on his dwellings roof five years ago. One year later, there were three up there, but thats another story.
A peregrine falcon was seen bathing in the quarry pond south of the Greater Rockford Airport Dec. 26. It was seen in the same area during the Christmas Bird Count on the 28th of December, and was seen by Caring a week later at the same locale. Its presumed to be flying up the Rock River to hunt pigeons on the tall buildings and old factories along the Rock River in downtown Rockford. Perhaps its that messy falcon that was hanging around downtown last winter.
Peregrines usually attack flying prey. They can dive at birds at incredible speeds. This is called stooping. Their stooping speed has been clocked at 270 miles per hour; it is by far the fastest creature on Earth. A third eyelid and a covering that extends over the nasal openings helps enable the peregrine to withstand such speed. Much of its headfeathers are colored as a dark skull cap that cuts down sun glare when diving facing the sun.
Ive mainly focused on two Rockford neighborhoods, the Sinnissippi Park area and the Alpine Park area, but, as stated before, there are raptors throughout Rockford. On my way to Loglis this morning (Jan. 12) as I conclude, a red-tailed hawk was feeding in a vacant field next to my apartment. I pulled over to watch for a while, thinking it had found a mouse or something else small in the unmowed grass. However, it was a half-grown cat.
Rod Myers is a local resident with an interest in the environment and disability issues. He has an associates degree in science and a bachelors in fine arts. Rod is a member of the Audubon Society, the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and Rockford Amateur Astronomers, Inc.