Hawks Face Off with Nesting Owl in Forest
Bird Watchers Witness Drama During Weekly Walk
|Debbie Becker leads a free bird walk at the Garden every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning at the Reflecting Pool in the Leon Levy Visitor Center.
Photo of owls: Debbie Becker
Late last month, in frigid weather conditions, 12 loyal birders met me under the clock at 11 a.m. for the weekly bird walk around the Garden. Our main objective was to see the nesting great horned owls. We headed over to the snag at the Forest’s edge where the owls successfully nested last year, and there in a cavity we saw our resident female owl, all fluffed up sitting, presumably, on eggs—only the top half of her body was visible.
We then searched for the male owl, who usually is nearby, guarding the nest and his mate. Our binoculars scanned the bare branches of surrounding trees until we spotted him wedged between the trunk and a branch of a tree. Three blue jays were harassing him—screeching at the top of their lungs. When one jay got too close, the owl flew to a branch closer to us.
As we stood there freezing and admiring his majestic beauty a red-tailed hawk flew in and landed about 20 feet away from the owl. This wasn’t any red-tailed hawk—it was the female that nested on the Library building last spring. She and her mate (he later died from eating a poisoned rat) had three offspring; she and her brood often can be seen flying around the Garden searching for prey. We had seen the female many times before, silently perched waiting for some unsuspecting squirrel or rabbit to happen by.
But this time she was facing off against the male great horned owl. As a birder with many years’ experience, I had never seen a red-tailed hawk even think of taking down a great horned owl. In fact, it is great horned owls that have been known to kill red-tailed hawks by silently swooping down on them from above.
But here it was daylight and the female red-tailed hawk’s time to hunt (red-tailed hawks usually hunt alone and pursue small game such as birds, rabbits, or squirrels). She is larger than the owl, and he immediately went into a defense posture—shouldering his wings, dilating his pupils, and bobbing his head. The red-tailed looked undisturbed by his display. The male owl began hooting and again displaying. It was a formidable standoff.
For almost 10 agonizing minutes the two hunters of the forest locked eyes. The birders asked me to intercede, but I thought better of interrupting nature. I love the owls and don’t want to see them hurt, but I asked the birders to wait and see if the owl could fend off this predator himself.
The red-tailed ruffled her feathers and the great horned owl hooted and shouldered his wings. Then the red-tailed took off, flew over the owl’s head, and landed on a branch behind the owl, who turned around to face her. Out of the blue another red-tailed hawk flew in and landed on the same branch as the owl. My heart skipped a beat. The red-tailed hawks appeared to be pack hunting! The large female intended to distract the owl while the other red-tailed, which was an immature bird, flew in, presumably, for the kill.
Nature or no nature, I yelled to the other birders, and we all started screaming and waving our arms while running toward the tree. The red-tailed hawks were not easily moved, but finally they took off. After a few moments the owl returned to its normal stance and flew to another tree deeper into the Forest. It was a harrowing experience for us all. and thankfully the owl was safe—but for how long? Were the red-tailed hawks simply acting territorial or were they really out to kill the great horned owl? Time may tell.
Follow the saga with Debbie Becker on her weekly bird walks, Saturdays beginning at 11 a.m. Meet at the Reflecting Pool in the Leon Levy Visitor Center.