Aug 4, 2011
Running the Gauntlet
A big, brown silhouette of a bird standing on the ground in the grassy area north of the cattle guard caught my attention this morning. It was a young Red-tailed Hawk. But the really interesting part about this bird’s presence was what had attracted its attention.
Movement in the grass just 20 feet or so ahead of the hawk morphed into a what looked like a Northern Pintail hen leading a large brood of ducklings past the hawk. She was very alert, cautious and yet, continued to push forward with her brood of twelve ducklings half her size instinctively following. The babies tumbled and stumbled over the ground after Mom, maintaining formation as best they could. Just then, an adult Swainson’s Hawk landed on the other side of the brood. Ms. Duck was leading her family through a gauntlet of predators.
The Red-tail watched silently for a few moments and then took off; I half-expected the hawk to swoop down and snatch a duckling. It’s possible that an Eastern Kingbird foiled the attack. The intrepid kingbird, known for its fearlessness, swooped down to the Red-tail and tried to peck the hawk on its back. Then, both flew off. That left the hen to contend with the Swainson’s.
The Swainson’s was interested and took a couple running steps with wings open toward the brood. But Momma just kept moving forward. Then I saw her breast was bloodied. I can’t say if she had tangled with the hawks before I happened on group, or if the blood came from her breast or the tops of her webbed feet. It just didn’t look good for her or the babies.
One thing that came through, however, was the hen’s resolve. She continued to press south through the grass and across the county road, and then farther south to the bend in the river. It’s as if she had a homing instinct for the water. They made it across the road in time due to the good graces of a refuge truck driver, which slowed enough to let the whole brood pass safely.
Meanwhile, the Swainson’s had lost interest, flown, then landed again near the ducks as they crossed the final upland section between the road and the river. Once again, the Swainson’s made a running feint at the brood without making a grab for any of them. It would have been easy pickings, but instead, the hawk took flight.
The hen and her brood made it to the river. I calculated I had watched the drama for at least a sixteenth of a mile.The last time I saw them, she was leading her babies downstream…eleven of them. One of the babies had not been able to keep up just after the Red-tail left. I saw the duckling stumble twice and then remain alone in the grass long before the brood crossed the road to the south side. Mom did not wait.
I guess that would be called survival of the fittest.
- Kris Purdy