Nature Notes: Tough Love

red-tailed hawk
A young red-tailed hawk finally claimed a rabbit carcass from its parents, as if to say, “You’ve had enough, the rest is mine.” Larry Penny

You may have noticed blackbirds chasing crows out of their territory. Crows are notorious nestling and fledgling stealers, and new parents are always in a state of angst and on the lookout for them as the end of the breeding period approaches.
    On the other hand, you also may have noticed crows chasing crows at this time, the chaser calling all the while, blurry caws slightly out of tune with the adults. Both common crows and fish crows are now being pursued by their hungry young fledges, not unlike the way human mothers are beset by their hungry tots at malls and restaurants.
    Grackle parents are also chased by just-fledged grackles, which follow them around from perch to perch, lawn to lawn with their mouths open, begging for food. Such is the weaning process in birds. It takes a few weeks for the parent birds to slip away permanently from their juveniles; it takes human parents several years.
    Teaching and weaning are part and parcel of the same process in birds and mammals. Young ospreys have to learn how to fly, then how to catch fish to replace those carried to them daily in the nest for four weeks or more prior to fledging. Parenting in birds may be relatively short, but it’s just as difficult and all-consuming as parenting in humans.
    A very good example of such parenting took place next to East Hampton Town Hall on Thursday of last week. The morning started with incessant screaming coming from the top of the microwave tower in the rear of the Town Hall complex. It turned out to be a young red-tailed hawk, looking more like an osprey to those on the ground staring up at it from 100 feet below. The scratchy screams went on for a couple of hours into the afternoon, when a mature red-tailed hawk, obviously one of the parents, came on the scene.
    The young hawk kept it up in the presence of its parent, until finally the parent flew down into the cherry trees that form a hedgerow between Town Hall and the condominium office building to the east of it. Had the parent had enough? Not exactly. It had spotted something below and was trained on it. A fellow onlooker shouted out, “It’s got something, a rabbit or a rat.” Sure enough, the parent had a cottontail trapped in its claws on the ground and in a few minutes was tearing at it with its sharp, hooked raptor’s beak. The baby hawk kept calling, now almost out of desperation. It could see its parent on the ground with fresh prey and wanted some.
    Did the adult take some up to the young in the tower? No, it picked up the rabbit and flew to the roof of the office building, in plain sight of the young, where it proceeded to feed on its prey. A second parent suddenly entered the scene, landing on the tower, not far from the wailing young. The parent with the rabbit flew to a tall cedar at the south end of the parking lot 75 feet away.
    In about five minutes the other parent took an awe-inspiring swan dive, a 10 by any standard, and without moving its wings, which were symmetrically folded with the tips back, coasted the 150 feet or so to the top of a tree less than 10 feet from its perched mate.
    The baby kept calling until it just couldn’t take it anymore. It assumed the same flight posture as its parent, dropped off its perch, and executed the same swooping swan dive as its predecessor, but instead of landing in a separate tree, it landed upside down in the top of the tree with the partially eaten rabbit, then took the prey from the parent, as if to say, “You’ve had enough, the rest is mine.”
    The two parents flew off to the east and were not to be seen again. The baby dropped to the hood of a town pickup truck with the cottontail and proceeded to finish it off. In a few minutes it was on the ground less than 50 feet away from gawking onlookers, working on the last remains. Then it took off with it, a few legs dangling, to the east, in the direction of the long departed parents.
    The next morning the young red-tail was in the tower crying “Mommy,” “Daddy,” again, but no parent showed up. It had been successfully weaned and, painful as it seemed, was obviously on its own.