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Archive for November, 2011

Red for the Red-shouldered Hawk.  Red for the color of the snake’s belly.  Red for the blood on the hawk’s foot.  Here’s the story.

I was in Florida visiting my step-daughters and their families for the holiday.  My step-daughter Debbie’s significant other, Jim, volunteered to go birding with me the day after Thanksgiving.  We started out early, but due to bad directions and spontaneous birding in unplanned locations, we arrived at Paynes Prairie’s La Chua trail at 11:00 AM.  It wasn’t particularly birdy at that time of day, but it was nice to be out on a beautiful unseasonably warm late fall day.

Between the sinkhole and the tower, someone told us that there was a hawk in the ditch by the path.  Jim quickly saw the bird and it allowed us to approach within about 25 feet.  We enjoyed close looks at this beautiful bird for 10 minutes before it dropped to the ground and thrashed wildly.  It quickly became apparent what had happened when we saw the snake.  The hawk soon stopped thrashing and sat on the ground, its legs and feet thrust forward with the snake firmly grasped in its talons.  The snake, which appeared to be about 3 feet long, writhed and flipped itself around hitting the hawk with its tail, but it was subdued within 5 minutes or so and we saw no more movement from it after about 10 minutes.  The hawk did not appear to kill the snake using any particular method; he just started eating it beginning with the head.  Jim and I were the only ones present for the initial attack, but a crowd of more than 30 people quickly gathered.  Jim had my scope on the hawk and snake and we shared the close-up view with others in the crowd.  Someone identified the snake as a Florida water snake, a Nerodia, but in my excitement over the hawk, I forgot to pay close attention to the snake so that I could identify it to species.  Since then I’ve learned that there are 3 Nerodia species on the Paynes Prairie snake list.  Amazingly, the hawk tolerated all the attention for 20-30 minutes before it finally drug its lunch to the other side of the ditch and into the weeds.

A little research into the diet of Red-shouldered Hawks reveals that snakes are common prey.  According to Kenn Kaufman in “Lives of North American Birds”:

“Diet: Includes small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds.  Diet varies with region and season.  Main items often mammals such as voles and chipmunks, at other times frogs and toads; may eat many crayfish in some areas.  Also eats snakes, small birds, mice, large insects, occasionally fish, rarely carrion.”

This eHow article elaborates on the seasonal diet differences:

“The menu of the red-shouldered hawk changes from winter to summer. In the colder months the hawk hunts and eats warm-blooded prey such as small mammals and other birds. However, the bird prefers to eat cold-blooded creatures like crayfish, bugs, frogs, and snakes when the opportunity presents itself in the hot days of summer.”

And, finally, Wingmasters suggests that snakes are an apparent favorite food of Red-shouldered Hawks.

“In fact, red-shoulders may have a more varied diet than any other North American raptor. Just about everything alive is on the menu, from insects, spiders, crustaceans and fish up to mammals the size of young rabbits and squirrels. Reptiles and amphibians are frequently eaten, with snakes an apparent favorite.”

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