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Naturalist’s Notebook: Red-tailed Hawk Plays Defense

Text and illustrations by John Schmitt
naturalists notebook illustration

17 February 1994, Washington, Skagit Co., Skagit Flats

Bald Eagles are the nemesis of nearly every other raptor wintering on the famous Skagit Flats. During our visit we observed many instances of eagles vigorously chasing smaller raptors in order to pirate their prey. And the size of the prey didn’t seem to matter; several times we observed eagles force Rough-legged and Red-tailed hawks to jettison their rodent morsels, which were probably too small to compensate the eagle for the energy expended to steal them.

But we observed one adult Red-tailed Hawk that had a strategy to foil the eagles, which on this visit, were quite common. We watched the hawk successfully capture a small rodent in the long yellowed roadside grass. While mantling over its prey, the hawk went nervously back and forth between attending to its prey and peering anxiously in all directions.

Having finally subdued its prey, the hawk abruptly launched into a hurried low flight directly toward a grassy dike where it plunged into the safety of a blackberry vine tangle on the opposite side. Within seconds a hulking dark juvenile Bald Eagle came flying in quick and low and began circling the dike where the hawk had taken cover with its prize. The eagle circled and peered down for a minute or two – even making one stalling descent, which was aborted – but finally it departed, leaving the hidden hawk to dine in peace.

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