A Predator Comes to Call

I was putting old chandelier crystals on my little Norfolk Island pine as I do every year around this time of year to honor all evergreens. It was almost November. I recalled a childhood experience… my little brother and I used to clink the beveled crystal pieces together in order to hear the music they produced when adults weren’t paying attention. Now each crystal shimmered like liquid rain caught by the late afternoon light. Suddenly a loud crash and thump interrupted my reverie. Oh no, a bird had hit the window – hard. I raced out the door. Yellow talons shuddered, but the hawk was dead when I reached it.

 Hawk is considered to be a Messenger from the dead by some Indigenous peoples – and the tidings the bird brings may be positive or negative… Hawks speak to power and they are also predators. In my life, hawks appeared the day I buried my brother; I also found a dead one on the day my mother died.

Context fleshes out the individual tale…

I brought the sharp shinned hawk in the house to examine it in detail; later I buried it outside my window.

Close up it was easy to identify this hawk. He had a small head, a squared tail, short wings, and spindly yellow talons. This one was quite large and brown with yellow eyes (adults have orange to red eyes) so I knew it was a young female; they are sometimes almost twice the size of males. Some are large enough to be confused with the Coopers hawk who look almost exactly like the Sharp shinned hawk except for size; the former has a larger head and a more rounded tail. 

The Sharp shinned hawk is the smallest of the three Accipiter hawks; the other two are the previously mentioned Cooper’s hawk and the large grey Goshawk. I have seen all of them in flight or perched on a fruit tree near the house; I have also seen them in Abiquiu during the winter. 

Because I feed my birds, I frequently encounter this streak of lightening as it soars low close to the ground. It strikes with a vengeance – feathers fly – and the bird disappears. My dove Lily b sits in his plant window that is open to the sky above most of the day watching birds. When one of the Accipiters slams into the window it scares Lily b off his basket but otherwise does not harm him. Afterwards, he sometimes coos indignantly at the intrusion! So far none of the hawks that have hit his window have been killed in all these years; this one struck a window on the other side of the house… a very strange occurrence, the possible meaning of which struck me like lightening. Was this bird’s death the harbinger of another predator’s demise? The election was a few days away. I hardly dared to hope.

These hawks also hunt by perching in dense foliage or by approaching stealthily through dense cover, then bursting forth with incredibly swift flight to capture hapless bird in the air – a horrifying thing to witness.

The Sharp shinned hawks are also the most migratory of the Accipiters breeding north to the Canadian Shield in Canada and Alaska and wintering as far south as Panama. Apparently, during fall and spring migrations, these birds travel together with dozens passing by coastlines, lakes, and mountain ridges. Some, however, remain in one place year round. I have always had the Sharp shinned hawk around here during the winter, and I also noted that while in Abiquiu I had them as regular visitors during the winter months; sometimes one would perch on the porch railing and look in the window!

Even if you don’t see them a sudden absence of birds at your feeder will alert you to hawk presence. These days in spite of the fact that they prey on songbirds, seeing the Sharp shinned hawk reminds me that the species is in decline especially in the east and I am sorry about that. Climate change is reducing the range of Sharp shinned hawks who have lost/ or will lose 55 percent of their range overall.

These birds live in mixed or coniferous forests like mine, riparian areas and open deciduous woodlands like the cottonwood forest around the casita in New Mexico. They nest in groves of evergreens of some kind and avoid open country.

During courtship, pairs circle above calling; fluffy white under tail coverts may be spread out to side during some displays. Males fly high and dive steeply into woods (about 20 percent lose their lives hitting trees during flight through thick forest). The nest site is very well concealed, usually in a dense conifer (such as spruce or fir) within a wooded area or a thick grove, and is placed about 20-60′ above ground, but it can be lower or higher in dense cover. The structure is a platform of sticks, lined with bark strips, twigs, grass. Both sexes bring nest material, but the female probably does most of the building. Four or five eggs are laid and incubated by the female while the male brings food. The youngsters can fly at about six weeks of age but both parents remain nearby for another couple of weeks. In addition to songbirds these hawks feed their young rodents, bats, squirrels, lizards, frogs, and snakes, although songbirds are a mainstay.

Native peoples relied upon hawks to protect them through trying times. As messengers they brought news. Today I can’t escape the gut sense I had that having the hawk slam into my window meant a human predator would soon be vanquished. I carried this intriguing thought and hopeful feeling around for more than a week before getting the news.

What is it about Red Oaks?

Every autumn I fall in love with ‘fire on the mountain’…This year the maple show was relatively brief, with scarlet leaves dropping early, although in mid October some larger maples still have bittersweet gold and sunset orange leaves. Drought is becoming more and more of a threat in our neck of the woods overall, and this year almost all the trees deciduous or conifer are suffering. Insect damage is pervasive and I have seen more diseased trees this year than ever before.

Which brings me to red oaks. I notice on my daily walks or while climbing nearby mountains that my eye is drawn to the graceful green oaks overhead, or to the brilliant crimson of smaller oaks that abound in the understory. Some oak leaves, of course, are already brown but many still vibrate with astonishing colors in mid October. Along with the moose 

 Maple, these smaller trees are striking in appearance, many with (apparent?) oversized leaves. A young friend of mine postulates that these large leaves help the seedlings photosynthesize more effectively, a perspective that I suspect has merit. 

When I first came to this land I noted the absence of oaks with dismay. Upwards of a hundred species of animals/birds need acorns to sustain them through the winter. To redress the apparent imbalance, on my woodland meanders, I started picking up acorns from the red oaks that I then planted in various places on this property. I did this year after year without any tangible results. And then about fifteen years ago I began to notice young oaks sprouting along my paths or around the house. By then I also had a healthy population of Blue jays as well as squirrels so I wondered who had done the planting. Blue jays select undamaged nuts to bury; I don’t know about squirrels. Amazingly according to the research that has been done only ten percent of the jays cached acorns are NOT viable seeds. Blue jays also spread buried seeds over a large area; as a result a number of species of oak trees have become dependent on these birds for acorn dispersal. So the next time you complain that there are too many jays at your feeder (as I certainly have) remember to thank them for planting new trees! 

The other fascinating fact I learned just recently is that oaks like to grow with white pines. There is a reciprocal relationship between the two trees on a mycelial level. When I discovered this piece of information I realized that the oaks around here didn’t begin appearing until the pines began to grow up through the field… coincidence?  And what do the blue jays know about this relational finding?

Last spring I selected one healthy red oak acorn to germinate in the house for fun. Sure enough it wasn’t long before a tiny seedling emerged. I let the seedling grow most of the summer in a pot to develop a good root system and recently planted it in a sunny spot. By then the tiny tree had lost all but one bright red and green leaf that pointed skyward like a sword. Like so many young oak trees insects had attacked the other leaves leaving gauzy translucent webs; some curled up and dropped.

Have you ever found yourself struggling for traction on a steep slope while on a fall walk in a hardwood stand? The cause of that slipperiness might have been freshly fallen northern oak leaves, which have waxy surfaces. Both acorns and the leaves are tied to the oak’s evolutionary strategy.

Red oaks evolved in concert with the now extinct Passenger Pigeon. It is estimated that 2 to 5 billion of these plump birds once inhabited the eastern forests. Their primary fall food was red oak acorns, and they would descend on forests in the midst of good mast years in such abundance that they would break off oak branches, creating ‘kindling’ on the forest floor. It’s important to note that the waxy oak leaves are fire prone once dry. This adaptation, combined with the life history of the Passenger Pigeon, helped create conditions for surface fires that oaks can often resist, but that may kill competing species.

Part 2

You can spot red oaks in spring, when beautiful pink leaves covered in silky down emerge from the trees’ buds. Keep an eye out for them as you explore the woods. We have two species of oaks that are common in this area. Red and white oaks have distinctly different leaves and acorns. Red oak’s leaves have pointed tips and are five to ten inches long (even on seedlings) and have rounded acorns. White oaks have rounded lobes and elongated acorns. In summer, both oaks have leaves that are a dark green, and they turn a rich red or brown in fall.

Northern red oak’s distinct bark makes the tree easy to identify even without leaves. Irregular reddish stripes lie in between rougher ridges. A few other oaks have bark with this kind of appearance in the upper branches, but the northern red oak is the only one with striping all the way down the trunk, except in trees of very large diameter when the bark becomes rougher at the base. Red oaks often hybridize with black and scarlet oaks.

If allowed to live long enough in forests, these trees grow straight and tall to a height of about 100 feet, though exceptional trees will reach 140 feet. Their trunks reach up to 40 inches in diameter. When they grow in the open, red oaks don’t get as tall but they can develop stouter trunks, up to six feet in diameter. Trees may live up to 400 years or more.

 Northern red oaks grow rapidly and are tolerant of a variety of soils and site conditions, though they prefer well-drained lower areas. Most species of oaks including red oaks don’t begin to produce acorns until they are thirty years old – the time when many of these trees are already being harvested for timber. Peak acorn bearing trees are between 50 to 80 years old, and certain trees produce more acorns than others, a phenomenon that can be baffling – highlighting how little we know. On a good mast year adult red oaks produce many acorns.

Red-oak acorns take two years to mature, are exceptionally high in fat, and don’t sprout until the following spring, even when buried. As a result, the acorns keep. Birds and animals rely primarily on red-oak acorns for their winter stash. White-oak acorns mature in a single year, are sweeter than the reds, and sprout soon after falling, losing their nutrients rapidly so they are eaten by wildlife immediately. During years when fall mast is plentiful many acorn – eating species including jays, wild turkeys, grouse, mice, chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons, bears, and deer all seek out this high protein/high fat nut to help them survive the winter.

In spring look for the flowers that form on the trees. At the base of the tiny female flowers, the cells swell into a vase shaped ovary topped by a pistil ready to capture any wind blown pollen… after fertilization the ovary becomes the acorn, the petals the cap.

There are eight species of oak that occur in Maine – the confusing part is that some of these species hybridize with others.

Scientists have barely begun to unravel the many ecological repercussions of the oak forest’s wax-and-wane mast cycle. For that matter, they’re not entirely sure whythe nut crop varies as it does. Certainly weather and other environmental influences are a factor — a drought can sap trees of reproductive energy; a late spring frost can kill flowers. But weather doesn’t appear to be the main influence. Bumper-crop years aren’t always especially weather-blessed. Poor mast years occur even when conditions are ideal for acorn growth.

Many scientists now believe the mast cycle is an evolutionary adaptation; that over the eons oaks and other nut-bearing trees have developed an on-and-off mast cycle to ensure their reproductive survival. This theory makes sense to me. If oaks produced a consistently healthy crop of acorns every year, populations of nut-loving animals would rise to the point where all the acorns would be eaten no matter how numerous. None would remain to grow into mighty oaks and we would be overrun with squirrels and chipmunks even more than we are right now!

The theory around the mast cycle solves the problem. During moderate to poor years, wildlife suffers, seldom increasing and often decreasing in numbers. Then comes a good year, when the trees produce far more nuts than the animals can consume, and acorns are left to germinate and renew the forest.This fall it is especially easy to see the red oak seedlings. They seem to be popping up everywhere. The next time that you are in the woods look for the small oaks that still display  abundant colors, and hope that some will survive the rapacious timber harvest to become nut bearing oak tree adults…