De­voted fa­ther or male liv­ing in fear?

Rome News-Tribune - - EDITORIALS AND OPINION -

The hawk crash­ing through our mag­no­lia inches be­hind a ter­ri­fied dove re­minded me of the first time I saw a Cooper’s hawk. I was 14 and do­ing what I did ev­ery sum­mer, ram­bling the woods and fields on my grand­fa­ther’s farm. Be­fore then I thought that all hawks were big birds that perched above road­side ditches or soared over hay fields search­ing for some­thing to eat. Deep in dense woods was not where I ex­pected to see one.

It was a fleet­ing look. I was not sure what I had seen. I knew it was a hawk be­cause of its shape, talons, and beak, but I did not know that there were hawks the size of a pi­geon. It flashed over my head, dodg­ing and dart­ing between trees, burst­ing through oak leaves. It wasn’t stealthy. I chased it but it didn’t take long to re­al­ize that there was no keep­ing up with it. I re­played its im­age in my mind, hop­ing to re­call spe­cific fea­tures. I didn’t own a field guide but my grand­par­ents might know the bird and there was al­ways the shelf of bird books in the Carnegie Li­brary.

I can’t say with cer­tainty that my mys­tery bird was a Cooper’s hawk. It could have been a sharp-shinned hawk. Their mark­ings and be­hav­ior are sim­i­lar, but the time of year was wrong. The fe­male Cooper’s hawk is the size of a crow but the male is not much big­ger than a mourn­ing dove —bout the same size as a fe­male sharp-shinned hawk.

Male hawks are smaller than the fe­males which is some­what un­usual in the an­i­mal world. Sex­ual di­mor­phism usu­ally fa­vors the male of the species with a larger, more pow­er­ful phys­i­cal pres­ence.

Male mam­mals of­ten win the right to mate with mul­ti­ple fe­males by chal­leng­ing and de­feat­ing other males whereby the strong­est males spread their genes across as many off­spring as pos­si­ble, as op­posed to more monog­a­mous species, such as most birds, in which the key to ge­netic suc­cess is help­ing to en­sure the sur­vival of the young by shar­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity for their rearing.

In a way the Cooper’s hawk mate se­lec­tion process re­sem­bles that of spi­ders — the male can be lunch if he isn’t care­ful. Fe­male Cooper’s hawks spe­cial­ize in eat­ing medium sized birds — doves, robins — birds about the size of a male Cooper’s hawk. To be suc­cess­ful and safe a male must be sub­mis­sive and not ap­proach the fe­male un­til he hears a call from her sig­nal­ing her readi­ness to mate. Af­ter mat­ing he is the pri­mary nest builder and provider of food to the fe­male and the chicks un­til they fledge — about 90 days. He is ei­ther a de­voted fa­ther and part­ner or sim­ply a male liv­ing in fear.

Cooper’s hawks are ex­cep­tional fly­ers. They don’t flit their way through the woods; they tear through limbs and brush at full speed. This ag­gres­sive fly­ing is nec­es­sary when pur­su­ing birds which can nim­bly ma­neu­ver through tan­gled branches, brush, and dead­fall. It is a dan­ger­ous life­style. One study of Cooper’s hawk skele­tons found that al­most 25 per­cent of them had healed frac­tures of their chest bones.

Un­like other hawks, Cooper’s hawks don’t use their beaks as killing weapons. They squeeze their vic­tims with their talons un­til they are dead, suf­fo­cat­ing them like a con­stric­tor snake kills its prey. This is an evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tion nec­es­sary for a hawk tak­ing prey that is nearly as large as it­self. Cooper’s hawks have also been known to drown a vic­tim, hold­ing it un­der water un­til it stops mov­ing.

The Cooper’s hawk is one of the species that have ben­e­fited from the con­ver­sion of their habi­tat into hu­man liv­ing space. Where peo­ple go song­birds go. Doves, pi­geons, finches all go to easy places to eat — bird­feed­ers. The open airspace above our back­yards pro­vides hawks a bet­ter and safer hunt­ing ground than thick and dan­ger­ous woods.

Like the one that crashed through the mag­no­lia I see th­ese hawks al­most ev­ery day. Maybe there are more of them be­cause they are drawn to the prime hunt­ing ter­ri­tory around my bird­feed­ers. Or maybe I know what to look for and no­tice them more — once you know what you are look­ing for, it’s eas­ier to find it. But the thrill of that first dis­cov­ery is long re­mem­bered. I will al­ways be that boy in the woods hav­ing a close en­counter with an un­known bird. STAN­LEY TATE Jim Pow­ell of Young Har­ris

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