Squirrels Taunt Hawks, and Pay the Price
For the past few months, I’ve seen red-tailed hawks almost every day on my walks with Esau in Riverside Park or on the upper boulevard that runs parallel to Riverside Drive. The bare branches make them easy to spot, and they seem always hungry and on the look-out for prey.
They often choose to perch in spots where they can keep an eye on promising activity both inside the park and along the Drive.
Sometimes they open their great wings and soar right over your head on their way to a better look-out.
On the coldest, bitterest days of winter, the park appears almost empty of wildlife. The squirrels are hidden in their leafy nests, curled into their bushy tails for warmth. The songbirds, too, are out of sight, huddled in the warmest spots they can find.
A long walk on a cold day revealed only a couple of sparrows near the Forever Wild bird feeder, puffed up like miniature Michelin men.
Later that day, on the upper path, a juvenile hawk tried unsuccessfully to snatch a pigeon from a small flock that pecked for seeds on the snowy sidewalk.
It must be hard to be a hawk in winter.
But then, just a couple of days ago, the weather suddenly turned bizarrely mild, and the slumbering squirrels erupted into demented, spring-like bouts of foraging and carousing.
It was probably the presence of so many mad crazy squirrels that elevated yesterday to a three-hawk day.
This is how it was.
At the 108th Street staircase, a hawk kept a baleful eye on rioting squirrels, looking a bit like a beleaguered security guard at a rock concert trying not to get riled by a gang of rowdy teens.
One squirrel ran up and down the tree trunk right in front of the hawk.
Once or twice, the twitchy little mammal made its way right out toward the branch where the hawk sat, and even stretched its body toward the bird. The squirrel would then quiver with excitement for several seconds, as if it had taken a dare, and was trying to get up the courage to actually touch the big bird.
A second squirrel then joined the first, and the two of them played chase just a few feet from the hawk.
What is it with squirrels? Why provoke an animal capable of catching and devouring you?
I’ve seen this behavior quite often in the park, and am baffled by it. Oh, I understand that squirrels in a tree are probably quite safe, as the hawk must swoop down with force, talons first, to catch and kill. But being safe doesn’t explain the behavior. What evolutionary benefit can there possibly be for squirrels to get so unnecessarily close to a powerful predator?
Take a look at what we saw just two blocks away, when we resumed our walk.
Yup, that’s a second red-tail with a partly-eaten squirrel. The hawk is uneasy about being watched from above by yet another red-tail.
Just a few weeks ago, I posted a story with several close-up shots of a juvenile red-tail lunching on squirrel inside the park.
So what in the world is up with the squirrels? Why do they tempt fate? Why get close to a predator? How can this behavior possibly serve the squirrel? Why doesn’t instinct keep them away? Is there such high evolutionary value to curiosity or boldness in squirrels that the trait overcomes a natural fear of being eaten?
Dear Reader, if you know the answer or have a good theory, please leave a comment.
Update March 3, 2011: This post is now part of I and the Bird #145, a birding blog carnival.
Please visit the wonderful British Columbia blog, Island Nature, for links to more bird posts.