I stared absently out a fourth floor hotel window, awaiting word on a relative who had been unexpectedly hospitalized. Distracted, my eyes settled on a solitary grackle, starkly perched atop the bare, brown limbs of a single tree in the empty parking lot.
My gaze was idle. The grackle was on high alert, though. I traced its view over the blacktop to a raptor 50 yards away. When the small hawk took to the wing, the grackle rocketed away in an instant. The hawk's effort appeared half-hearted. It did not extend the chase and replaced its escaped prey atop the barren tree.
The grackle was wise to exit as soon as the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) showed any interest. These are excellent hunters, and other birds make up 90 percent of their diets.
The sharp-shinned hawk is about the size of a blue jay, but considerably more lethal. During a leisurely walk in our suburban neighborhood last summer, my wife and I were surprised by a sharpie that appeared out of nowhere to kill a house sparrow just steps away. With the fresh kill firmly in its grasp, the hawk quickly retreated to a nearby perch where it devoured its meal.
A sharpie typically takes its prey to a favorite eating site within its hunting territory. There, it systematically plucks the feathers from its victim before consuming it. A pile of feathers at the base of a tree or post often marks these feeding locations.
The bird I was watching reminded me of a lightweight wrestler. It appeared top-heavy, with a broad, rust-streaked breast tapering into a slimmer base. Its blue-black head seemed to be attached to the blue-gray body without the benefit of a neck. I thought it was a female. But without a mate nearby, I couldn't be certain.
As with most raptors, the females are larger than the males, and sharpies are the extreme example of this phenomenon. Males average 10 inches from beak to the tip of their tails and weigh 3.5 ounces. Females are 20 percent longer and weigh 6 ounces. Theories abound about these variations. Most ornithologists suggest that bigger females can lay bigger eggs, provide more complete incubation coverage on the nest and have the extra reserves to sustain them during the brooding of their chicks.
Young sharp-shinned hawks fledge at one month, although the parents supplement their diets for another four weeks. Adults train the young to hunt by taking a piece of a dead bird into the air. As the young hawk approaches, the parent tosses the food toward the youngster. In this way, the birds learn to capture prey while flying. In addition to their usual diet of small birds, sharp-shinned hawks occasionally eat rodents, frogs and insects.
Sharpies often breed in Canada's boreal forests. In the winter, they fly as far south as Central or South America. In October and November, they're often seen in huge numbers in the United States as they fly over mountain ridges and other "hawk watch" hot spots, taking advantage of rising thermals to ease their flights south.
Many sharpies reside year-round in the United States, in a broad band that stretches from New England down into the Chesapeake watershed, across to the Pacific coast. The birds favor conifers, but can be found everywhere except deserts and grasslands.
Fewer sharpies are being counted during annual fall hawk migrations. The population might be stable, though. The hawks appear to be simply staying near backyard bird feeders. There's no need to travel far when dinner is so convenient.
Sharpies look a lot like Cooper's hawks. Both species have blue-gray backs and wings, with reddish streaked underparts. Both have short, rounded wings that help them navigate in the woodlands they frequent. Adults of both species have red eyes. Cooper's hawks are significantly larger than sharpies, but judging size in the field is tricky. Sharpies' tails are squared off at the end, while Cooper's tails are slightly rounded. The Cooper's hawk tail is proportionately longer. Some birders say the best way to distinguish between these species is the overall look of the bird. Sharpies appear a bit more delicate than the more robust-looking Cooper's.
The sharp-shinned hawk I was watching had shifted its focus to a small flock of sparrows. Unlike the wary grackle, the sparrows seemed oblivious to their precarious situation.
Such is the nature of our lives, I think. We move within our own small circles, attentive to the near at hand, but ignoring the threats to our fragile lives. And so, as I waited to see how this latest avian drama would unfold, I wondered again how my brother-in-law was faring.