Birds of a Feather
Thirty-three degrees and smog in the valley
More magpie reinforcements flapped down, joining the magpie uproar on the back hillside. Their outraged squawking drew me to the patio doors. A magpie gang was mobbing a red-tail hawk. The red-tail was hunched high in a tree, ignoring its tormentors.
Hawks are common visitors year-round. Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks hunt chickadees and woodpeckers drawn by bird feeders in winter. They come for the open water of my Japanese fountain all year.
Sharpies, slang for sharp-shinned hawks, bathe in the fountain’s pool. The pool, roughly bathtub-size, is six inches deep and fed with a recirculating pump. The sharpies stand on the smooth stones lining the pool, spread their wings and float.
But I’ve never seen the bigger red-tails drinking or bathing in the fountain. The hawk was hunkered down in a tree above the pool, so perhaps it was planning a drink or dip. The magpies had other plans, however.
Magpies often mob (official term) birds of prey. Crows, jays and other birds will harass and pester hawks too. Hawk experts believe the smaller birds want the predators out of their territories. Birds of a feather flock together—and drive away the dangerous intruder.
(Watch a short video showing crows mobbing a red-tail hawk in flight.)
Red-tails breed across the continental US and much of Canada. Red-tail hawk parents share the Salt Lake City Cemetery with great horned owls, building nests atop tall spruces. This was the first I’d seen them in my accidental nature preserve though I’d seen them sailing over the graveyard many times.
Magpies are quintessential birds of the West. Noisy, big and brash, magpies are smart like their cousins crows, jays and ravens. They range from the Dakotas and Nebraska on the east to California and Washington on the west. Then to southern Utah and Colorado all the way into Alaska and the northern reaches of western Canada.
While easterners transplanted to the West search in vain for fireflies, westerners who find themselves on the east side of the Divide miss the flash of magpies.
The red-tail hawk put up with the ill-mannered magpies for ten minutes or so. Then deciding a drink wasn’t worth the trouble, the hawk stretched, startling the magpies who hopped up to higher branches. Without letting up on the noise.
A quick swoop and the red-tail launched from the tree, russet tail bright, and flew eastbound. The magpies fell silent, then drifted away in all directions, threat bullied off. At least for now.