Guest Author - Carrie McLaughlin
The three of us were quietly standing at ease, conversing in the chill autumn morning on a sunlit wooden deck four feet above the clipped grassy lawn, when the air beside us was abruptly knifed open and filled with the screams of a baby. So sudden and otherworldly was the interruption that – outdoorsmen with fine reflexes that we all were – we stood rooted in shock even as our heads collectively swiveled to see the cause of the chaos. In that very instant, we heard the thud and saw the sprawl of feathered bodies onto the ground below us as a terrible struggle unfolded noisily and desperately.
A sharp-shinned hawk had aerially attacked a common grackle and driven it into the ground.
The grackle’s dark beak gaped wide and red as it screamed repeatedly (for there is no other word to describe it), its yellow eyes strained and bulged, and its wing forearms and claws grasped and flailed and scrambled at the adjacent brush pile as it tried to rip itself up and out from under the weight of the hawk. Dry twigs and branches, and wilted weeds and vines came tumbling down, breaking apart and rolling away from the pile as both birds beat their wings – the grackle’s in double-timed frantic fear, the hawk’s in measured ferocity as he tried to pummel the grackle into submission. The hawk had a tenuous grasp of one deadly hooked talon in the grackle’s rump as it tried to gain a purchase with the other talon in the grackle’s back. Each desperate lunge of the grackle caused the hawk’s sharp black claws to rake through the grackle’s bronzed body feathers rather than into its flesh. His wing bones beat deliberately upon the grackle like twin bludgeons and his fiercely determined red gaze was locked on the grackle’s back at the point he was attempting to impale. His dark hood flared aggressively outward and made him look bigger than he was.
Our now belated physical movement, in concert as it were, broke into the deadly drama just enough to distract the hawk at the same split second that the grackle recognized us as a possible refuge and twisted and heaved mightily toward us. He miraculously slipped free and flung himself into our midst in one huge motion – through us and over the house into the trees. The sharp-shinned tumbled for the briefest second backward onto his long, spreading tail, and with a mild look of alarm at our large conjoined predatory presence, he launched himself like a missile in the opposite direction and dodged and darted through the woods in finely calculated evasive maneuvers.
As suddenly as it began, it was over. Not even a feather was left behind.
The common grackle is typically over twelve inches long, and the sharp-shinned hawk averages eleven inches. So the entire scenario was rather stunning as this hawk typically pursues much smaller prey (primarily songbirds like warblers and sparrows), and it’s attack mode is not commonly from the heights in a falcon's dive.
The grackle was an adult male, as evidenced by his dark black-blue head and neck, pale yellow eye, and iridescent bronzed wings and body. Due to his size being slightly smaller than the grackle, and because the sharp-shinned female is always about one-third larger than the male of the species, it appeared the hawk was a male, also.
The surrounding area is one of open pastures edged by post oak/juniper woods on the north edge of a lake, so both species would be expected to occur here. The sharp-shinned prefers trees and woodlands, and the grackle occupies open territory, but where the twain doth meet (as in my own yard), so does the predator and the prey. Sharp-shinned hawks are the raptors most likely to be found preying on songbirds at your bird feeders. They are agile and clever, and will stealthily slip through the shadows of branches to close in on their intended victim. Grackles are gregarious and congregate in large flocks and are difficult to separate from their companions, so since we did not hear or see others, we found the isolation of this grackle by the hawk to be unusual, too.
Common grackles are year-round residents in the southern United States, and sometimes the sharp-shinned is also. But usually this hawk migrates north to breed in the summer and then returns here in the autumn. It is likely that this was one very hungry hawk in migration that determinedly pursued the larger bird to lengths and circumstances not normally taken.
Humans being what humans are, we love to pigeon-hole and quantify, define and predict. It is the kind of scenario described above that throws a wrench into that toolbox, and so we must always have our eyes and ears and minds open and alert, aware and willing to believe - in the unusual, the unexpected, and the extraordinary in the wonderful world of birds.