What Happened Here?

Near the Wetlands, and next to an American holly loaded with berries, stands a sapling elm tree. There are many such trees here at the Museum. But, as I walked past this particular pair of arboreal specimens I noticed several clusters of passerine contour feathers stuck to the thin branches of the small, bare elm. Most of the feathers were white, some had rufus colored centers. What happened here?

How did these feather wind up on this tree?

When I see a group of feathers clumped together as on the young elm tree, it usually means that a bird has paid the ultimate price, or at best has had a very close call. A hawk, whether sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk, had most likely spied the bird sitting out in the open and ambushed the unsuspecting passerine.

The nearby, fully fruited holly had probably attracted the bird. In its desire to feast and fill its belly against the winter, it had dropped its guard allowing the hawk the opportunity to likewise fill its belly.

Some of the feathers had reddish centers.

Cooper’s hawks and their smaller relatives, sharp-shinned hawks, are legendary for tactical bushwhacking of their prey, flying along field edges, shrubs, and even bird feeding stations hoping to catch off guard unsuspecting smaller birds who are otherwise occupied with feeding themselves. It’s an effective strategy. Over the years, I’ve seen countless bird remains scattered on woodland paths, field edges, and around bird feeding stations, especially during fall when these hawks are migrating through our area.

I searched the ground below the tree for signs of a struggle. There were no wing or tail feathers, no body parts, and no blood anywhere to be seen. This was a good sign for the smaller bird. Typically, when prey is captured, the hawk will, on the spot, start plucking and tearing at the prey leaving feathers and pieces scattered about. The fact that I saw none of this in the area suggests good fortune for the victim. It may have been a frightful, yet safe, outcome, a close call.

But what was this apparently lucky individual? What kind of bird was it? The white feathers could have come from a variety of species. Many birds have white belly feathers. It’s the rufus tinged feathers that narrow down the choices. My first thought was that the victim had been, or still is if it escaped, a female cardinal. But, cardinals don’t have white in their plumage.

Three bird species in our area have both white and rufus body feathers, eastern towhee, American robin and eastern bluebird. The eastern towhee has white lower breast and belly feathers and rufus flanks. Both thrushes (robin and bluebird) have reddish breasts and white bellies. And, although all three species eat fruit, the two thrushes are more likely to be seen in a tree consuming holly berries. Towhees are more frequently found feeding on the ground, typically in the leaf liter.

I’m leaning towards robin. It’s not uncommon to see robins with scaly breasts. The individual feathers that make up their breast having light-colored outer edges with reddish interiors giving the feathers a scale-like appearance. I don’t recall seeing either towhee or bluebird with scaly flanks or breast.

Note the scale-like appearance of breast feathers (Am. robin).

Briefly, I gave thought to the idea that these feathers had come from the hawk itself, the feathers having been pulled out as the hawk crashed into the tree in an attempt to capture its prey. Both Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, and red-shouldered too, have reddish feathers on their breasts.  But, they all have barring on their breasts and many of the feathers have a dark center shaft. There’s no hint of either characteristic on the feathers that I saw.

I could be wrong on all accounts. It wouldn’t be the first time. If you have an idea or opinion on what took place in Explore the Wild which left a cluster of feathers stuck to a sapling elm tree next to a berry ladened holly tree, I’d be happy to hear it.

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