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Wing Prints In The Snow

2-7-19 gray squirrel kill_U1A2844Rarely have I had the good fortune to come upon a predator dining on its prey, but in this case, luck was with me. Seconds after I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk on the ground working on something it noticed me and flew away, perching within sight so as to keep an eye on its recent kill. This sighting eliminated some of the mystery of the story written in the snow. Wing prints would have revealed that the predator was airborne, and the wingspread might have narrowed the list of potential hawks/owls that it could have been, but determining the species would have been challenging without a sighting.

Although smaller rodents (voles, mice, etc.) make up a greater percentage of a Red-tail’s diet than larger ones, Gray Squirrels (whose remains are visible and were still warm) are consumed. The large numbers of Gray Squirrels on roadsides last fall reflected a booming population which most likely has provided ample food for many predators this winter, including this hawk. Interestingly, fur from the tail had been removed prior to the bird’s directing its attention to the internal organs of the squirrel. A quick retreat by this curious naturalist hopefully allowed the Red-tail to return to its meal.

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13 responses

  1. Bill on the hill

    Tremendous opportunity on this one Mary! Luck was surely shining down on you… Great undisturbed photograph too!
    Bill… 🙂

    February 4, 2019 at 8:49 am

  2. Alice Pratt

    I’m happy to not need to appreciate a fresh squirrel to eat 😝. Very happy for the Hawk!

    February 4, 2019 at 9:15 am

  3. Jane Marshall

    Amazing picture which tells so much. But to be able to get a visual ID was
    great, too. Thanks for the details explaining the episode!

    February 4, 2019 at 9:47 am

  4. Suzanne

    Nice post. I had the privilege to see a couple Wild Kingdom moments in the wild. In Colorado, a sharp-shinned hawk nailing a feeding snipe and struggling to carry it off to a sheltered place to eat (it was almost as big as the hawk). Then, in Vermont, a Cooper’s hawk grabbing a blue jay and plucking it alive while it screamed and clutched the hawk’s ankles. Both were adrenaline moments for the prey and for the human observers!

    February 4, 2019 at 10:11 am

    • Jo

      I have to admit I’dnever thought of this… maybe I just assumed predators kill prey first (or just eat them whole). I wonder how normal that was, and why the hawk didn’t go for the kill first. Was that a particularly sadistic hawk or normal behavior? Disturbing. Wow.

      February 4, 2019 at 10:26 am

      • Suzanne

        I don’t think we can apply “sadism” to wild critters, and a hawk can’t eat something almost as big as it, or even half as big, whole. (Owls will certainly do this w/ voles or mice.) I wondered if the plucking alive was partly to weaken the blue jay, certainly to get started and not let it escape, and — yes — it was harrowing. I was glad it wasn’t a cardinal or somebody else I’d have gotten more emotional about! Re: the snipe, that bird was about 3/4+ the size of the hawk and they were out in the open, so I believe the hawk was driven to try and get its meal into a more protected area quickly. That prey died more quickly.

        February 4, 2019 at 10:31 am

  5. Jo

    The wingspan looks huge in this picture!

    February 4, 2019 at 10:20 am

  6. Kathie Fiveash

    I found the remains of a muskrat on the trail this morning. It was intact except the head had been eaten. The muskrat was cold and stiff. No visible tracks – or they were lost in the mess of dog and human tracks. Do you think the predator was disturbed as it ate, or is there something/someone who would want only the head?

    February 4, 2019 at 10:40 am

    • Hi Kathie,
      Either the predator was disturbed, or perhaps it was a weasel or mink – known to decapitate prey and just eat the head. Great horned owls have also been known to do this (perhaps explains no tracks?).

      February 4, 2019 at 1:12 pm

  7. Laurie Spry

    Did you see the tail hair, or was it just missing? Wondering if it was ‘hairless’ when killed; maybe a parasite, or maybe a near miss from another predator stripped it off? does seem pointless for a hawk to remove hair from a squirrel’s tail…

    February 4, 2019 at 5:12 pm

    • The tail hairs were there (Upper part of kill site). They had been plucked/sheared off!

      February 4, 2019 at 8:47 pm

  8. Wendall Clough

    Great posting, I come across wing-prints a lot. I find piles of feathers sometimes. My favorite one was from this year after the first big soft snow, a Ruffed Grouse popped out after it’s night nap and walked to a big limb lying on the snow and drummed it’s wings I took some pics of those wing-prints.

    February 7, 2019 at 6:24 am

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