Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sailer, raptors, and a rabbit

As many of those who see this blog also read Steve Sailer, I feel compelled to bloviate a bit in reaction to his recent comments about the raptor who harrassed his son's pet rabbit. Steve originally thought the perpetrator was a hawk:

This evening, shortly after dark, I was stepping into the enclosed backyard where Fred, my older son's large white rabbit, lives, when a gray shape suddenly swooped down out of the night sky and a white shape shot across the lawn inches ahead of it and took refuge in the dense star jasmine bush.

The hawk (or perhaps an owl, but it looked more like a hawk) landed on the roof of the house behind us. I threw lemons at the predator, but when it took flight again, it landed on the telephone pole in the backyard and peered down hungrily. Eventually, it tired of the lemons flying past and took off for parts unknown, but I fear it will be back for Fred.
Falconer and naturalist Stephen Bodio and I both doubted a hawk as the culprit. The ubiquitious Red-tailed hawk is a possibility, but unlikely for a couple of reasons: First, a well-fed pet rabbit is far too large for a red-tail to carry off, so he'd have to pick at it in the backyard. Despite being well-adapted to living near humans, red-tails are fairly skiddish at close range, especially if they're being watched (often times I'll see one on a telephone pole that I'm running under and when I conspicuously look up, he abruptly flies off). I've only had one encounter close enough to have made contact if I'd wanted to, when biking on a nature trail (he was just inches off the pavement with a rat snake apparently too thick to hoist away).

Second and more importantly, red-tails don't do nighttime. The equally ubiquitous Great-horned owl owns the night (just as the swifter Red-tail dominates the day). For a creature that lives and dies by sight, darkness is just too risky. Narrates the great outdoorsmen Marty Stouffer:

Sharing the same hunting territory, the Great Horned, and the Red-tailed hawk feed on the same prey species. They occupy different niches because the hawk hunts by day, and the owl mainly by night...


But when the hawk has a family to feed and the sun is shining, it will not tolerate the presence of the owl in their shared territory.

By night, the owl would have the advantage. Now, the hawk, a much faster flier climbs high into the air, then drops to deliver the message.

Speed is one of the hawk's primary weapons.

It may reach a hundred miles an hour in a dive. Powerfully, repeatedly, the point is driven home. The owl is surely ready to leave by now. But if it tries to fly, it's slower than the hawk and will surely be hit in midair. Finally a chance to escape. The hawk is the clear winner, and the owl will probably not hunt here in daylight again.

This sort of territorial confrontation regularly occurs in nature. Different species and even members of the same species constantly compete.

Great-horned owls frequent chimney tops at night, scouting out songbirds perched in neighborhood trees and 'feral' suburban rabbits with few other serious predators. A Red-tail tearing at a catch in an open yard would be really be rolling the dice.

There are a few other potentially culpable raptors. The Harris hawk is conceivable, but these neotenous predators often hunt as a group with other members of the family. They're not inclined to live in areas with lots of people, and face the same Great-horned quarry threat that the Red-tail (and most other raptors) does.

The aggressive Northern Harrier is another possibility. But similar in size to the American crow, rabbits are too large to be a staple.

If Steve lived out east near the Arizona border in a rural setting, the Ferruginous hawk would be a possibility, as it lives mostly on rabbits and might resemble a grey blob when zipping around in the dark. But her lifestyle is not conducive to territory populated by people.

Steve seems to have come to the conclusion that Fred (the rabbit) was being preyed upon by a Golden eagle. That Steve would be so lucky! This majestic bird rules the sky (although slightly smaller than his cousin, the Bald eagle, Golden eagles are more alacritous and equipped with more devastating talons--our national bird, by contrast, lives largely on carrion and by filching fish from Ospreys and the spoils of other bird's hunts), but on the few occasions I've seen him in the wild (not in Kansas!), I've not been able to get within 500 or so feet, unable to even distinctively make him out until he takes off. To be after a pet rabbit in a suburban setting with the tenacity to hang around while missiles are hurled in his direction, the Golden eagle would have to have been either an emaciated immature bird or sick. On the bright side, if Steve is right Fred probably doesn't face a lingering threat.

Back to that bodacious badboy, the Great-horned owl. These guys are scary and are as aggressive as the raptor world gets. A friend and future veterinarian whose volunteer work includes helping nurse injured birds of prey back to health nearly lost an eye to one. They're known to truculently (or valiantly!) attack anything that approaches their nests (including humans), relenting only when death demands it.

A Great-horned will eat just about anything he can get his talons on, including other owls (barn owls are a particular favorite). It is also not uncommon for him to go after backyard pets, and small canines (often with a nose glued to the ground in the evening while searching for a place to do business) are especially vulnerable (we won't let the Shi-Tzou out at night unless the black and tan coonhound goes out with her). While primarily active at night, the Great-horn is a common sight at dusk and dawn, and at times will come out in broad daylight.

If Steve is able to give his brain a good racking, a few things may stand out if he was close enough to what turns out to have been a Great-horned: Piercing, yellow eyes resembling those of a housecat (unique to birds of prey, owls have eyes facing forward instead of off to the sides, giving them tremendous depth perception at the cost of panoramic vision (which they make up for with swiveling necks that can turn upwards of 270 degrees in both directions)), and eponymous pseudo-ears (or 'horns') that are really just feather tufts.

If the hunter is anything other than a Great-horned, a Great-horned scarecrow may provide some protection (even if it is a Great-horned the thing may help). But what if Fred fell for it? Is living an extra tomorrow worth turning his Eden into Hades?

Another option is getting an dexterous dog along the lines of an English Pointer. But that's a hefty investment on behalf of a rabbit.

Fierce though Great-horns are, they, like the rest of their raptor brethren, are never safe from the relentless heckling of boisterous crows. Even if you don't realize it, you've almost certainly seen crows pester a hawk, an owl, or a falcon at some point (if you look for it, you'll see it almost daily). These omniverous birds may be attracted by placing corn kernels or fruit grinds in bushes or trees in the backyard. A murder of crows will keep all of Fred's tormenters away (and they won't bother him unless they start nesting on Steve's property). But then again maybe we don't want a situation along the lines of one faced in Springfield:

Skinner: Ahh, but as it turns out the lizards where a godsend since they've eaten all the pigeons.

Lisa: Isn't that a little short-sighted? What happens when we're up to our ears with lizards?

Skinner: Ah, well we shall simply release wave after wave of Chinese needles snakes.
Lisa: Then what about the snakes?

Skinner: We simply import gorillas who will eat all the snakes.

Lisa: Well what happens when we're up to our ears in gorillas!?

Skinner: Ah that's the beauty of the thing, come winter the gorillas will simply freeze to death.

Perhaps a pellet or BB gun is in order? That should scare the raptor off without fatally wounding him. Let's hope Steve doesn't take the advice of one of his commenters and brandish a shotgun. That's the last thing the empirical right needs--one of its intellectual heavyweights spotlighted for firing a deadly firearm at a federally protected bird in an irascible spat of intolerant favoritism toward his own animal over another of equal moral worth!


Steve Sailer said...

Thanks for all the pictures. It's funny how hard it is to be a reliable eyewitness. I was within 25 feet of him for 30 seconds, throwing lemons at the beast on top of the telephone pole in the back yard, but it was a moonless night about a half hour after sunset, so it was hard to tell for sure.

I would bet against it being any kind of owl. It definitely looked like a hawk or eagle. And it was big, bigger than the average hawk around here in Southern California. I'd say about 30 inches tall when sitting on the pole.

crush41 said...

If you're pretty sure on the size, then it was almost certainly a Golden Eagle. Ferruginous' hawks look sort of like eagles, and are pretty large as far as hawks go, but still don't go much over two feet.

I've not heard of a Golden eagle making such a close encounter and then remaining reticient. He must've been a hungry guy. The good news is, Fred probably won't be terrorized by him on a regular basis.