Naturalist’s Notebook: Ferruginous Hawk Steals From a Roadrunner

by John Schmitt
April 15, 2010
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1 December 2006, Lower Kelso Valley Road, near Onyx, Kern County, California

I notice that the beautiful adult Ferruginous Hawk I found only moments before, perched in the scrawny willow at the edge of the field, has flown away sometime during the few seconds it took me to check the area for other birds. Quickly scanning, I find it again in a hunting sprint, flying low and direct over the field. Suddenly the hawk’s swift flight ends in a flash of spread wings and tail as the hawk veers, attempting to catch a Greater Roadrunner, which deftly dodges to one side, leaving the big hawk standing on the bare bit of ground where the roadrunner had stood an instant earlier.

The roadrunner now stands about four feet away, facing the hawk with its body and head tipped forward and its crest raised, wings spread to the side, and long spread tail, pointing skyward. A large, dark rodent dangles heavily from the roadrunner’s beak. Within moments, the hawk launches another attack, driving forward using both its heavy rufous legs and wings. Like a matador, the roadrunner holds its ground until the last instant—wings and tail still spread— before running and flapping away. The determined hawk manages to follow close behind the dashing and jinking roadrunner, and finally causes it to jettison its prize, which the hawk instantly pounces upon.

All action comes to a sudden halt. From six feet away, the roadrunner has turned to face the hawk, again tilting its body and snapping its spread tail vertically, its partly spread wings out to the side. The situation turns into a standoff for the next minute or so, but the roadrunner gradually assumes a relaxed posture and finally jogs up-slope toward more concealing saltbush scrub. The Ferruginous Hawk placidly watches the roadrunner go, every so often glancing down at its ill-gotten prize. When I leave some minutes later, the hawk still sits on the same bit of ground, looking rather smug on its field of victory.

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