Thursday, May 24, 2007

More Blakeman on redtails and pigeons and a warning for photographers

Rock Pigeon [its official common name] and dandelions 4/28/07
Photo courtesy of

Sent John Blakeman a note about my recent post reporting on the Astoria Park nest.

From: Marie Winn
To: Blakeman
Sent: Thu, 24 May 2007 10:42 am
Subject: hunting piegeons

John, just wanted to make sure you note the hunting method described in the last paragraph of my post today. Marie

He replied:

I sure did!
I hope that I'm not overstating this, but let me assure you once again that before Pale Male there are virtually no records of red-tails consistently taking pigeons. Ornithologists and raptor biologists haven't seen or reported this, and falconers, many of whom tried to persuade their hungry, motivated, and powerful red-tails to pursue wild pigeons, just have no experience with any of this. The standard dictum of both raptor biologists and falconers is that red-tails don't consistently take healthy, free-flying pigeons. They can't. The hawks are too big and slow, the pigeons too fast and agile.
Obviously, NYC red-tails---and probably others in other urban areas loaded with pigeons---have recently learned how to effectively and consistently take these non-native columbids.
I know for certain that my wild rural red-tails aren't wasting a minute trying to take the pigeons residing around rural barns and grain elevators. We've got pigeons out here, too, lots of them, but they can easily out-fly and avoid any pursuing red-tail.
The difference, I believe, is not the hawks nor the pigeons themselves. It's the city environment, which has a multitude of building and bridge corners and edges, around which a knowledgeable and practiced red-tail can swoop against the local pigeon population in flighted stealth. No one can deny that in open air a pigeon can easily out-fly a red-tail. In a straight tail-chase pursuit, the pigeon simply accelerates away from the big hawk, who in level flight can hit at best 40 mph. The pigeon can power itself to 45 mph or more.
Like so much other urban red-tail biology, we are watching here the selection and adaptation of brand new hunting behaviors never seen in the species. It's really a shame that no one is seriously studying any of this. If this were a rare hawk, as with the peregrines a decade ago, grad students would be working on any number of master's theses offered by this remarkable new urban raptor population.
But these are only red-tails, the most common large hawk in North America. The authorities know everything worth knowing about this frequently-encountered hawk. There just couldn't be anything more to learn about the species, especially from putatively aberrant members of a new, atypical urban population.
On behalf of future biologists, who will someday uncomfortably refer back to your many postings on these phenomena to rediscover the new biology we are witnessing today, I thank you greatly. There are few higher pleasures for field biologists than to observe, describe, and then explain new wild animal behaviors. Frequent pigeon-killing by NYC red-tails is just such a phenomenon.
--John A. Blakeman

PS A warning for photographers

In case you are now inspired to head for Astoria Park and photograph the nest on the Queensborough Bridge, Bruce Yolton sends a warning, (based on recent experience):

It is illegal to photograph any NYC bridge without a permit!

[I guess I'd better remove Jules Corkery's nice photo from the blog, just so she doesn't get in trouble.}