The sun had not yet peeked over the Sandia Mountains when I arrived at Albuquerque’s Alvarado Park to meet Brian Millsap and Kristen Madden who have been heading up the urban Cooper’s Hawk Project.
I monitored nests for Kirsten’s nest defense project during 2009 and 2010, which collected data on the aggressiveness of nesting Cooper’s Hawks in city parks with those in the bosque. This year’s project, which only focuses on nests in Albuquerque’s northeast heights, will monitor more nests and will collect data on nesting territories, nest productivity, survival rates of adults and chicks and movement of un-mated second year birds, in addition to nest-site defense. In addition to banding adults and chicks, Brian will be placing radio transmitters on 20 hawks.
I have eight nests in my territory. While Alvarado Park is not in my territory, Kirsten thought I would be interested in observing the process of capturing the hawks, banding and collecting data and attaching the radio transmitters. We were joined by Brian’s friend Jim and my friend and co-author, Barbara Hussey.
As we got out of our cars at Alvarado Park, we could hear two different hawks kekking – both of them were second year females vying for this territory. There was a mature female, and another second year female, that Brian had banded and attached a radio transmitter to, that had both abandoned this territory. No male has been detected. The male will start feeding the female before she begins incubating.
Brian and Jim set up the mist net – which had stronger netting and poles than those used for songbird banding. While I went to get something from the car, Brian retrieved the owl from his car and set up the flashlight-appearing speaker that kept repeating the kek call.
“That’s really clever,” I commented as I walked back towards the group. “The decoy is programmed to turn its head like a real owl.”
“That IS a real owl,” Kirsten stated. “It came from Talking Talons. It is blind in one eye, so it can’t be released into the wild.” It was sitting on a stool-like perch and was attached with leg leash.
One of the females flew into the tree next to the mist net and owl – and after calling a few times, swooped towards the owl. It nicked a few feathers before it zoomed off – evading the net. It repeated the effort a couple more times before flying off to another tree.
The second female was perched high in the bare branches of a tree about a block away. That tree also had an empty nest in it.
When it was evident that the owl and hawk calls were not going to draw one of them in again, we decided to move on. They were more interested in each other, than in the owl.
“I’ll put Eve in the car,” Brian told us. Before he picked her up, he affectionately scratched her on top of the head, while she looked at him endearingly.
“She wouldn’t let anyone else do that to her,” Kristen stated.
Our next stop was Inez Park, where we were not able to locate or call-in a hawk, so we moved on to Taylor Park. There were two females chasing each other in this park also; however, one flew off and didn’t return.
Brian and Jim set up the mist nets again.
Almost as soon as the recorder started, the remaining female flew in and landed nearby. It didn’t take her long to sail towards the owl – and get caught in the net. Kristen and Brian ran over to retrieve her.
She was placed in a tube constructed from two coffee cans. Once inside the enclosure, she calmed down while Brian set out the banding equipment.
Before pulling her out of the tube, he weighed her and measured the tail feathers. He then placed a silver USGS band on her left leg and an individually numbered green tag, specific to this project, on her other leg.
“Notice the yellow on her breast,” Brian stated as he blew on and held back the breast feathers. It shows that she has plenty of body fat, meaning she is successful at hunting.” He then proceeded to measure the length of the primaries and secondaries and check for molt.
Finally he placed a hood over her head to calm her while the radio transmitter was being attached.
After it was slipped over her head, he carefully adjusted the lengths of the Teflon harness to make sure it was on evenly. When he was secure about its positioning, he tied a knot, cut the excess lengths of harness, and put a dab of super-glue on the knot to make sure it wouldn’t come undone.
Finally, he used a chopstick to carefully arrange the breast feathers around the harness.
“The bands will bother her at first,” Brian told us, “but they are secure, so she can’t get them off. She won’t even notice the transmitter harness until she goes to roost tonight and tucks her head under her wing. She might fidget some during the night, but then everything will be OK.”
She was ready to have her hood removed and have her eye color documented.
“Would you like to release her?” Brian asked me. She was ‘rarin’ to go, so I wasn’t sure how the hand-off was going to go; however, I clasped her snuggly when he placed her in my hands and she didn’t squirm.
I let go – and she tore off. The only other bird I had ever released was a hummingbird – quite a difference!
She flew to the branch of a nearby tree, pecked at her legs, and then flew confidently to the top of a tree in the next block. We watched her through our binoculars to make sure that she was doing OK before we packed up the equipment.
After watching the interplay between a previously banded pair at Hoffman Park, we called it a morning.
Not only had it been a thrilling morning, but I had learned so much about Cooper’s Hawk behavior from Brian and Kirsten.