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Otto: August brings back school, Cooper’s hawks

Published: Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 5:29 a.m. CDT • Updated: Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011 7:59 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
A Cooper hawk is pictured.

August is back-to-school month, a time when kids of all ages leave home, some for the first time. That being the case, back-to-school time also is hand-wringing time for parents everywhere. They want their offspring to succeed, but their visions of greatness often are steeped in reality:

“Will my kid thrive in his new environment? Does he have what it takes to make it in the world? Will he remember to use a Kleenex?”

It’s not much different in the animal world. Wild parents spend weeks and sometimes months grooming their young for independence, relying on a combination of instinct and learned behaviors to give the kiddos what they need to survive: the abilities to find water and shelter, and the skills required to find food without getting eaten in the process.

This sort of thing is going on right now in all our parks and natural areas, and even your own backyard. If you have any doubt, just ask the McKinseys of St. Charles.

Laura McKinsey alerted us to the presence of nesting Cooper’s hawks in her neighborhood about two months ago. She especially noted the activities of Mr. Cooper’s, who worked double shifts to keep watch over his family while also making sure they were well supplied with small birds and other prey items.

When I visited the McKinseys the other day, I wondered if I’d be able to spot any of their Coops. The leaves are thick this time of year, making it tough to peer into the branches and even tougher to spot the cryptically colored birds.

But one of the great things about birding is that it isn’t just a visual pursuit – you can use your ears too. And it only took about a second to hear the raucous Cooper’s family – Mom, Pop and the three kids – literally whooping it up in the trees between Third and Fourth Streets. A fuss like that can sometimes mean a predator is nearby.

But this case was quite the opposite. There was food to be had – in this case, a robin, I think – and it was every bird for itself.

Standing at a distance, trying not to interrupt the feeding frenzy taking place in the tree, I couldn’t help but think how neat it was to be able to watch wild childrearing in action, right in suburban St. Charles.  Such an opportunity would’ve been next to impossible as recently as 20 years ago. At that time, Cooper’s hawks were listed as endangered in Illinois, and sightings were truly rare.

As I watched the McKinseys’ hawks, several non-Coop feathers fluttered to the ground like crumbs from a table. That evidence combined with the high-pitched, perhaps envious, calls of the two siblings, were proof positive that the Cooper’s fledglings had survived another day. Which is quite an accomplishment, considering mortality rates run as high as 75% for first-year raptors.

I can’t say for sure, but there are many indications that the upswing in backyard birdfeeding may be helping this species along. Even though Cooper’s hawks don’t eat seeds directly, they do feed on the critters that do. So it only makes sense that the bubble in the food chain caused by more food sources, in the form of platform feeders, hopper feeders, tube feeders, suet feeders et al, would travel up to the next trophic level.

With August being back-to-school month, keep an eye out for kids darting across the street on their way to class. But also keep an eye to the sky. You just might see a Cooper’s hawk, or two, darting about too.

• Pam Otto can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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