Friday, August 19, 2005

Blakeman on the talon-drop posture & a Postscript from Ben

Referring to yesterday's posting, Mai Stewart sent some questions to John Blakeman:
Dear John,

Perhaps you've noticed the posting on Marie's website about Pale Male and Lola having been seen flying w/ their talons DOWN -- I wondered if you have any thoughts on what's going on, as (Marie noted) mating season is about 4 months away.

Also, on Lincoln's website, he mentions that the kids have been observed playing in a sprinkler and puddle . This is interesting, since I didn't think RTs liked water or avoided it because, as you mentioned, it removes the protective coating on their feathers. Any thoughts about this? Or, are they just being playful kids?

Here is JB's reply:
I read the latest posting with continuing interest.

In winter, the descended feet routine is surely a pair-bonding phenomenon. But from my experiences with red-tails, I don't think this behavior in August is any prelude to bonding or copulation, as it often is in winter. I'll use my convenient explanation that it's "displacement," where the bird responds to some stimulus with another unconnected, seemingly unproductive behavior. In this case, I think Lola's stimulus is to hunt for, feed, and check out her offspring, just as she'd done in the past several summer periods. But she has no offspring this year, so how can she respond to her instinctive habits? She drops her legs. To her, it feels like she's done something, that she's responded to her habitual or instinctive summer impulses. What else can she do?

If this were in October, there could well be a sexual aspect to this, when day lengths are markedly shortening. For old, experienced pairs, that rapid daylength change can prompt some pair bonding and breeding territory behaviors. But here in high summer, the days are still long and not much shortened. Lola has no cares whatsoever. She has ample food, and plenty of time to kill. She's dropping her legs because it feels good, making her think that she's "done something" to respond to her habits in previous years. Hawks are remarkably habitual. They don't do much thinking in any mammalian sense. But with their narrow range of behaviors, they do respond to memories and habits. That's my explanation for the dropped legs in August.
Next August, after Pale Male Sr and Lola have resumed successful nesting, when they have a pair of fledglings learning to hunt in their part of Central Park, hawkwatchers should be looking for the dangling legs routine. If they see it then, my explanation is all wrong, of course. (Trying to determine the private thoughts and emotions of both human and hawk females is often beyond masculine comprehension. Both are so wonderfully but frustratingly enigmatic.)

And no, I'm not surprised at all with the young hawks' playing in the water spray. This is not common behavior, but heat and humidity in the 90s isn't either. Falconers know that immatures (and many adults) really like to be sprayed with water. On hot days, many falconers spray their birds with a spray bottle of water. The birds in the park sprinklers were certainly watching the motion of the water streams, perhaps an initial attraction to them. Red-tails see everything that moves, and an animated, hissing, pulsing stream of water must be considered by a hawk. It has many of the enticing traits of something to kill and eat.
The drenching of the hawks doesn't really remove the oil on their feathers. When they dry off they will understand that on the next day's preening session they will have to be attentive in stropping the beak on the oil gland beneath the feathers on their rumps and carefully spread it over the entire body once again. An hour's play in the water will require some diligent preening, but that's all normal. Yes, they are just kids playing outdoors, learning about water streams and hot days. Notice that the adults haven't been seen in the sprinklers. They may drop into a shallow edge of a pond and take a quick, 30-second "bath," but their sprinkler days are long past.
What I find remarkable is not that the birds were playing (yes, playing) in the sprayers, but that they were doing this right on the ground with humans passing so close by. My first questions about red-tails in Central Park centered on what foods, what prey the hawks could or would capture there. Those questions are now being answered (rats and pigeons, incongruously). Now, I wonder about why these birds accommodate humans so easily, almost to point of utter disregard. As I stated before, out in the countryside a strolling human would be fortunate to get within a hundred yards or more before a perched red-tail would flee. In Central Park, the birds apparently pay little attention to humans. Remarkable. Is Central Park an open, uncaged zoo for the red-tails? Seems so.

John A. Blakeman

Postscript -- an e-mail received this morning from birder and long-time hawkwatcher Ben Cacace:


On Aug 12th I saw the same behavior where the pair of
RTs were flying with talons down. Always nice to see
but I thought there was a reinforcing of the bonds
during the post breeding season. From my notes:

"RT: Lake, 2 circling together from E to perch on SE
tower [of] Beresford, most of interactions w/talons
down including just before perching."

I never thought this was usual post breeding season.

Ben Cacace