Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: When avian David meets bird Goliath, bet on David

Ken Hare's Natural Alabama: When avian David meets bird Goliath, bet on David

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - It didn't seem like much of a match:

In one corner, a Red-Tailed Hawk, weighing in at 45 ounces and with a 50-inch wingspan, razor-sharp talons that can grip with 10 times the strength of a human hand, and a beak strong enough to easily rip apart its prey.

In the other corner, a Northern Mockingbird, weighing in at a mere 2 ounces, with a 13-inch wingspan and nothing impressive in the way of foot or beak strength. After all, it's a songbird, not a raptor.

Put your money on the songbird. When it comes to protecting its turf, the mockingbird takes on all comers, big and small, and more often than not prevails.

Every backyard birder in Alabama has seen evidence of the Northern Mockingbird's aggressiveness in defending its territory. The bird will attempt to chase off all manner of birds from feeders in yards that it considers part of its territory. Squirrels, small dogs and cats, even humans aren't immune. For a couple of weeks a few summers ago my wife wore a hat when she went out to get the morning paper because a particularly aggressive mockingbird would dive bomb her hair.

But when it comes to territorial aggressiveness, mockingbirds are far from the only small birds willing to take on much larger birds. I've seen Red-Winged Blackbirds, Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers, Barn Swallows and lots of other small birds harass hawks, crows and even Bald Eagles.

Earlier this week I was taking photos of a young Red-Tailed Hawk on the Alabama A&M farm north of Huntsville when I got photo-bombed by another bird that flew into the camera frame. It was an Eastern Kingbird, perhaps with a nest somewhere nearby, that was trying to chase off the hawk by harassing it.

I'm not sure who was more surprised -- me or the hawk. I was looking through the viewfinder and didn't see it coming. The hawk was looking at me, and didn't see it coming either. (See photo.)

(A couple of interesting details, if you are viewing the accompanying photo on a platform that allows a close view. Note the hawk has reflexively responded to the attack by covering its eyes with a "nictitating membrane" -- a bird's version of another eyelid, but one that most birds can see through to some degree. And note the red blaze on the Kingbird's head -- something that is seldom seen. I've seen and photographed scores of them, and only caught a glimpse of the red before when the bird's feathers were ruffled by a strong wind. During this attack mode, the red is clearly visible.)

The Eastern Kingbird, which looks a little like it's wearing a black tuxedo with a white front, is best recognized by a white stripe across the end of its tail. It's a common summertime suburban and country bird in Alabama. It's about the size of a Northern Mockingbird, and approaches the mockingbird in the ferocity with which in can defend its territory (although to me the kingbird seems more tolerant of many smaller birds than the mockingbird).

In this particular case, the hawk weathered the attack, and did not fly off (see photo) until the kingbird had retreated to a perch 20 yards away.

I was a little closer to home last week when I saw the Northern Mockingbird vs. Red-Tailed Hawk bout play out. The hawk was on a regular perch -- the cross on Eastmont Baptist Church on Atlanta Highway in Montgomery. The mockingbird repeatedly swooped down and around the hawk, until it abandoned its perch. (See photos.)

Almost all birds are territorial to some degree, at least during nesting season. However, certain communal birds such as herons and swallows only defend their nests and tolerate other birds -- even other species -- inches away. Some birds, such as the American Robin, appear to be territorial only when it comes to other robins but ignore other species they do not consider a threat.

The Eastern Kingbird is a an interesting case when it comes to being territorial, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the summer when it breeds from the Alabama and Florida Gulf coasts all the way deep into Canada, the Eastern Kingbird aggressively defends its territory. But when the species winters in South America it routinely flocks with other birds, showing no signs of being territorial.

The size of a territory varies by a huge factor from species to species. A Golden Eagle, for instance, may have a territory of 20-30 square miles or more, while a flycatcher may consider only a few hundred square yards as its territory. Food availability can affect the territorial size for some species, which defend larger territories where food is scarce and smaller ones where it is plentiful.

Many birds announce their territories through calls or, in the case of many woodpeckers, their drumming on trees, which announce their claim to a territory to others of their species and minimizes actual contact.

In spring and summer breeding season, it's a regular war out there in Alabama, with blackbirds, kingbirds and mockingbirds vs. much larger hawks and crows. But the smart money will be on the Davids vs. the Goliaths in these birds against birds interactions.

Nature Notes:

-- The Alabama Wildlife Center on July 25-29 will host a Summer Day Camp for students about to enter grades 1-6.  The Wildlife Center, located in Oak Mountain State Park, rehabilitates and returns to the wild injured and orphaned native Alabama wild birds.  The day camp will introduce children to the work of the center, to birding and to nature in general. For information, go to:

-- Birmingham Audubon will hold two summer field trips to west central Alabama in search of Swallow-Tailed and Mississippi Kites and Scissor-Tailed Flycatchers. The first will be July 30, 7-9 p.m., in the Prattville-Autaugaville area, and Aug. 6 to the Greensboro area. Check for details.

-- The Alabama Wildlife Federation's Alabama Nature Center will host raptor specialist Maryanne Hudson from the Southeastern Raptor Center for a Thursday Night Event on July 21 at 6 p.m. Hudson will be showing several eagles to attendees, as well as discussing the work of the raptor center. Cost is $5. The program starts at 6, but the center encourages people to come at 5:30 and bring a brown-bag dinner. Located at Lanark in Millbrook. Directions available at:

Ken Hare is a veteran newspaper writer and editor who writes regularly for Feedback appreciated by email at Email items for Nature Notes two weeks in advance.

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