Sunday, April 10, 2011

Year Round Birds in Northern Illinois & "The Capture of the Sparrow Hawk"

There are many birds that not only spend the year in northern Illinois (see my 4/1, 2011,  post for the complete list: ). Some of these feathered friends will migrate a bit south during the winter or spread further north during summer months, but more or less, a good percentage will be here all year. On this post, I'll feature a few more of these birds:
A Song Sparrow showing off its tail feathers, Rock Cut State park, Rockford, IL; 4-9-11
A Song Sparrow trying to keep warm, Blackhawk Springs Forest Preserve, Rockford, IL; 12/28/10.
A House Sparrow, Rockford, IL; 3/20/10.
A Mourning Dove, Rockford, IL; 1/21/11.

A Black-capped Chickadee,
Rockford, IL; 10/9/10.

A Black-capped Chickadee braving a snow storm, Rockford, IL; 2/9/10.

A Tufted Titmouse shows up at our feeders at least once a year, Rockford, IL; 11/14/09.
There are many raptors that will spend all year in northern Illinois. I am not particularly good at IDing Raptor type birds, but (Below) are a few pictures of some that I did know:

An American Kestrel (Known as a Sparrow Hawk when I was a kid)
showing its sharp talons, Tucson, AZ; 12/27/09.

"The Capture of the Sparrow Hawk"
When I was a kid living on an old farm homestead, we had an old bird roosting box attached to the side of the barn. It had two sections each with its own opening in the side of the barn leading to a perch. This roosting box was high at the rafter level and we could not access this box unless we scaled up the side of the hay mow, which was not an easy task. Well, after the alfalpha season, our hay loft would be filled to the brim with hay bales, so we could get to this box a lot easier by just climbing up the many layers of hay bales which would be packed to the rafters and above.  The birds that usually nested in this box were Pigeons. I used to raid pigeon nests to stael the young squabs and raise them myself. I would let the pigeons raise her little squabs, and then just before the squabs were strong enough to fly, I would reach in the box and take them out and feed them meal, corn, gravel and water until they were adults. Over time I learned when the time was right to take the squabs. If I waited too long, the young pigeons would grow strong enough flee the nest before I could capture them, but if I took them too soon, they wouldn't be able to survive without their mother, and would die in captivity. I also used to climb up the old silo and raid Pigeon nests there as well. At one point, I had at least a dozen pigeons captured - all raised from their nests. My siblings and parents never did see my attraction to raising my own roost of pigeons. I guess I never knew why I did it either. I guess, I just liked birds.
     Anyway, one spring we noticed a Sparrow Hawk (now known as the American Kestral) was flying in and out of one of the perches of this bird box in the hay loft. I kept tabs on this hawk and checked the box everyday. One day we found nine pinkish eggs with brown spots on them in one of the sections of the roosting box. I thought "How Cool! This is better than an old pigeon, anyday." My little brother wanted to pick up the eggs, but I had to slap his hands and tell him not to touch the eggs, because the hawk would abandon the nest if it knew humans touched her eggs. I didn't want to just observe this hawk, being the 12 year old farm boy, I wanted the hawk as a pet. So I made my plan - capture her and raise it along with its young. I cut a square out of some old wire mesh, and planned on waiting until the Hawk was in the box laying on its nest, then I'd slip the wire mesh in between the roosting box and the side of the barn and trap the hawk inside the box.  For the next several days everytime I went up to check on the box, I found that the hawk would fly out as soon as I came within a few yards of its nest.  I soon figured out that I was too noisy in my approach, but no matter how stealthy I thought I was, it still sensed my presence and flew out. 
     My next plan of attack was that I'd have to already be present when the hawk arrived to lay on its eggs.  So I camped out up in the hay loft laying next to bird box - waiting... waiting... and waiting. I spent a lot of time up there laying on my bed of hay bales, waiting for the Sparrow Hawk to return. I was ready for her; I had the wire mesh on the roosting box just above the slot where I could slip it in fast before the hawk had a chance to escape.  After  it seemed like hours, I heard her land on the perch sticking outside of the side of the barn. It sat out on the perch surveying the area, probably listening for me. I was frozen still, holding my breath, not wanting to give away my presence. I could see her out on the perch through the slots of the siding of the barn. She was finally satisfied that she was safe and returned to lay on her eggs. I could see her sitting on the nest through the cracks of the corners of the wooden box.  I held my breath and hoped I wouldn't tip her off. I waited silently for the right moment. I didn't want to act too soon. I let her settle in on her nesting duties. When I felt I waited long enough, I reached over the top of the box and grasped onto the wire mesh and as quickly as I could slipped in front of the hole of the perch. I got it! The hawk went crazy inside trying to get out beating its wings against the sides of the box and crashing into the wire mesh that covered her escape route. It was trapped. I was excited - I had my very own pet hawk!  I imagined all the cool things I would teach it. I ran down to the shed in which I had a portion of it caged off in a 12' long by 6' wide by 7' tall area.
     "Plenty large," I thought, "to keep the hawk." Inside the cage I nailed an old chicken coop roost, with 12 cubicles where 12  different chickens could nest at the same time.
      I would go up to the roosting box, open the small trap door at the top of the box, reach in grab the hawk and bring it down to the shed where I would release it in the cage. Then I would bring down the eggs and put it in one of the chicken coop roosting cubicles, where the hawk would eventually find her eggs, and then sit on them and raise her young. A perfect plan, and I would have ten cool Sparrow Hawks. I figured I would catch mice to feed her or if that was too hard, I could always feed it some of the multitude of cats that were on the farm (at one point I think we had over 30 cats roaming the farm). No one would miss a couple of cats. I was ecstatic.  I readied the cage for my hawk, then ran back up the hay loft, climbed up the many layers of bales, and reached the roosting box. Perfect! the Sparrow Hawk was still in the box. All I have to do is open the hinged trap door, grab the hawk and bring it down to its new home. I held my breath, opened the lid, and reached in.
     The only flaw to this plan was that Sparrow Hawks are not like pigeon squabs. Pigeons are somewhat docile and allow me to grab them. This is not the case of a hawk, which is a born predator with weapons of that of a predator. I soon learned it had very sharp talons and beak.  I opened the trap door flap and reached in. The sounds of the hawk screeching and the sound of wings beating against the sides of the roosting box was deafening. She attacked my hand with a fierceness of a wild animal protecting her babies and herself. It wasn't a pretty sight and very much a one-sided battle. My hand  was only in the box for a couple of seconds, but surely seemed longer. When I was finally able to pull my hand back out of the box, it was pretty much scratched to a bloody mess of loose skin and puncture holes. I managed an "Ow!" and scolded myself for not thinking of wearing gloves.  I closed the lid of the box and sought medical help - namely my mother, who also scolded me for such a foolhardy stunt. All my inflated plans of having a cool Sparrow Hawk family as pets were soon deflated by a mother who had a little more sense than a 12 year old boy - funny how that happens.  After I was bandaged up, she made me go back up the hay loft and take the wire mesh out of the slot so the hawk could fly free.  The saddest part of this whole affair was that the hawk never returned to the nest and the nine beautiful pink eggs with brown spots turned cold, never to be hatched.  I felt guilty for being the villain - for causing the needless death of a future generation of American Kestrals. I vowed never to get in the way of wild nature rearing its young ever again.

Although I was quite far away, as evidenced by the poor quality of this pic, I
was able to get this American Kestrel in my viewfinder just yesterday,
Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, IL; 4/9/11.

Other raptors who live in northern Illinois year round are:

This Coopers Hawk landed in the tree behind our house,
and allowed me get a picture before it flew off, Rockford, IL; 1/9/11.

This Red-tailed Hawk landed in the middle of a soccer field at Bauman Park,
and let me get close enough for this great pic, Rockford, IL; 5/1/10.
Though far from being raptors, I found this beautiful pair of Mute Swans
in Pierce Lake one morning, Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, IL; 5/10/10.
This ends my series about birds that spend all year in Northern Illinois. I am hoping next weekend I can start a new series of posts dealing with the birds that use Northern Illinois as a temporary stopping point during their spring migration to other destinations north of here. Hope to see you here next weekend.

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