Larry Lyons: Someone has to see if the hawk is hungry

Published 2:33 pm Thursday, January 7, 2010

lyonsJust when you begin to think you’ve pretty much seen all Mother Nature has to offer some new marvel pops up.

Such was the case a couple mornings ago. As always, I arose at dawn, nuked a cup of yesterday’s coffee and stood at the patio doors watching the world wake up. Down on the creek were sixteen mallards wishing that I’d quit dinking around and get out their daily ration of corn.

There was the usual amount of bustle at the bird feeders. A dozen and a half juncos and some mourning doves were on the ground sifting through the fluffy, new snow for fallen seeds from the conglomeration of feeders above. A couple mourning doves had laid claim to the mixed seed feeder and two female cardinals were pretty much glued to the sunflower seed feeder. Goldfinches hung from every perch of the thistle seed tube with a dozen more jostling for position awaiting an opening. Two red-bellied woodpeckers were taking turns on the suet while four downies hunkered on adjacent perches, sneaking in for a nip of suet whenever the red-bellies weren’t looking.

Flitting to and fro too fast to count, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches assaulted any feeder slot that was open at the moment. That’s pretty much the way things go around here all day long.

A bit later I was tending to last night’s dishes and glanced out the window at the feeders. There wasn’t a single bird in sight, a guarantee that a hawk was skulking around nearby. Often the hawks are hard to spot but this Cooper’s sat in plain view in a poplar tree about fifty feet from the feeders. I didn’t see any tell-tale feathers wafting about on the new fallen snow so apparently there were no sacrifices this morning. It always amazes me how dozens of birds of all sizes and colors can instantly vanish into thin air when a hawk shows up at the party.

I was casually watching the hawk when I noticed a small bird nervously flitting among the branches just a few feet away from it. It darted from limb to limb behind and to the sides of the hawk. The binoculars showed it to be a titmouse, apparently with suicidal tendencies. Then, to my amazement another titmouse appeared and they both taunted the hawk, which just sat totally indifferent to their audacity. When one of the titmice flew across the open toward a nearby sycamore I figured it had just made the fatal error but the hawk paid no attention.

That’s when it dawned on me that the titmice probably weren’t deranged after all. I’ll guess they somehow suspected that the hawk had already had breakfast and they were testing their theory. Both titmice flew back and forth between the hawk tree and the sycamore several times with no consequence. With that success they began cautiously darting to the feeder to grab a quick sunflower seed then quickly retreating to the sanctity of the gnarly sycamore limbs to crack it.

As much as I was amazed at their carefully executed test, I was even more dumbfounded when other birds began to nervously appear one by one. Must be they were watching the whole affair. Coming out of nowhere a nuthatch grabbed a sunflower seed and retreated to the nearby maple. As if suddenly beamed down from Starship Enterprise two chickadees appeared on the feeder, grabbed a seed each and joined the nuthatch. Then a downy woodpecker magically sprouted out of the bark of the maple and several juncos flitted in. Figuring all this audacity was eventually going to lead to a bloodletting I went out and shooed the hawk away. I hadn’t even gotten my coat off and the feeders were again swarming with juncos, goldfinches, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers.

So how do you suppose they work out who is going to do the hawk test?  Is it solely the job of titmice or do they all take turns? “Okay, Dave and Fred did it last time. Next time it’s Thelma and Joe’s turn.”  Or perhaps they draw straws or cut cards? Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at