The Grim Reaper In Action At Her Favorite Tree On June 10 and June 21, 2020

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Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

The Grim Reaper In Action At Her Favorite Tree On June 10 and June 21, 2020

There is an old oak tree located about 200+ yards east/northeast of our two purple martin colonies, mine and my neighbor Bob. The tree is probably about 60 feet tall and appears to be in decline with some open branches and a few dead limbs. Part of the trunk has decayed and several large limbs have broken off. We live in northwest Louisiana.

For the 2020 season it has been the place of choice for some of the parent martins to assemble their fledglings to be fed and introduced to the world outside the nest and what a horrifying introduction they would get! The tree top is especially attractive to the martins and something else and this something else has a special fondness for martin fledglings. Oh what an unwise choice some parent martins made! It is a tree of death and multiple martin fledglings have met the Grim Reaper as she swung her grisly scythe. The same thing happened in 2019 and was much worse! This is truly a tree of death!

And what is this Grim Reaper? It is a mature female Cooper’s hawk that has a 100% success rate in catching martin fledglings from this tree and other areas near our martin colonies. She is a martin fledgling’s worst nightmare. She no doubt is feeding nestlings or fledglings as I have watched her carry martin fledglings to a forested area to the northeast of our colonies.

We currently have two pairs of resident bird eating Cooper’s hawks attacking martin fledglings in the surrounding areas of our martin colonies, mine and my neighbor Bob. One pair is west of us toward Texas and the other pair is east. Our martin colonies seem to be in a “free territory zone” where each hawk pair can sneak in and hunt the martin fledglings. When one catches a martin fledgling, he/she goes either west or east to a possible nest site!

Nearly all these attacks are “at a distance” and not directly at our colonies. This makes it difficult for me or my many martin/dove decoys to offer any “help” in preventing successful hunts on the martin fledglings. Most attacks are on martin fledglings assembled in tree tops or on power lines several hundred yards away. I can observe the hunts but do nothing to stop them.

The female Cooper’s hawk from the east has been the most prolific in hunting the martin fledglings and NEVER misses from what I have seen so far. She is a martin fledgling serial killer.

There have been other attacks not only at this tree but at other locations within several hundred yards of our colonies. We probably lose well over a hundred martin fledglings each season to the resident Cooper’s hawks and these predators are the number one killers of the fledglings during the daylight hours. The carnage begins every season during June and continues through July when the last martin fledglings finally leave the area. The hawks KNOW that “easy meat time” is coming and they arrive to take their fair share!

Here are two attacks on martin fledglings by the female Cooper’s hawk from the east at her favorite tree. I selected June 10 as this was the first kill I observed and June 21 because of the distance she pursued a small flock of martin fledglings.

Example One—June 10, 2020, My First Observed Kill

Early morning at around 6:30. I was outside as I always am at this time of the year observing my martin colony. The tree of death was already attracting martin fledglings and several family groups were scattered about the branches. I can clearly see this tree from my front porch.

I remembered the martin fledglings kills that took place in June of 2019 at this tree, all inflicted by Cooper’s hawks. I hadn’t seen any so far in 2020 and wondered if they would start soon. I didn’t have long to wait that morning!

Suddenly the sky filled with screaming martins as hundreds bolted from both our colonies and climbed like rockets. The Grim Reaper was coming to take one of their babies.

A huge vortex of screaming martins formed over a pine tree grove that is about 100 yards from the tree of death which had multiple martin fledglings perched in the top branches. I had seen that “movie” many times in the past and knew a Cooper’s hawk was there and checking out the “easy meat” in the tree top. Soon I would be introduced to this notorious serial killer of martin fledglings! When you see a large flock of screaming martins swarming above a tree or trees, there is a good chance that a Cooper’s hawk is in there.

Suddenly a Cooper’s hawk exploded from a pine tree, accelerated like a bullet, and within seconds she was at the top of the tree with martin fledglings finally coming to life and flying downward to build up speed. I quickly learned this was a mature female hawk. Multiple adult martins were mobbing the hawk which never missed a wing beat as she streaked toward her victim.

The hawk made a sharp banking action downward and snagged a martin fledgling that only got maybe 10 feet down from the top of the tree. She quickly dove into the thick understory of bushes and small trees that borders the tree of death.

In the past I have observed martin fledglings that don’t move and the hawk will grab them off a tree branch or power line. I have seen a Cooper’s hawk fly up to several recent martin fledglings that were perched side by side on a power line, take one youngster, and the others never moved!

After the hawk had disappeared in the understory, the martins formed a screaming flock that circled over the area as they looked for the killer. Martins often do this after a hawk has caught a fledgling and flies into a nearby tree or trees or bushes.

From what I have observed in similar predation events in the past, if a hawk takes a martin fledgling to a thicket, stays there about ten minutes or more, the hawk is possibly preparing the prey for delivery to their nestlings/fledglings. This is particularly true if the hawk leaves and is carrying the butchered martin fledgling in his/her talons. The hawk may pluck the fledgling and eat certain parts. I have searched the area where a hawk was apparently at after catching a fledgling and found plucked martin feathers scattered about.

When the hawk finally emerged from the understory about ten minutes later, the entire flock of screaming martins came down like an angry fist on the hawk which climbed up in the sky and flew off. Using my binoculars I could see the shape of a martin fledgling in the hawk’s talons. Martins mobbed the hawk which totally ignored them. The martins are ALL bluff and the hawk knows it.

I now knew this is not only a mature female Cooper’s hawk but she most likely has nestlings or fledglings to feed as she climbed up higher in the sky and carried the martin off to the northeast. Flying up in the sky and carrying off a prey item often means that the hawk is feeding young at a nest site. This is a most dangerous Cooper’s hawk for a martin colony! And I also would soon find out she has a mate that hunts the martin fledglings too.

The die was cast and she and her mate would be on the prowl, hunting the martin fledglings and creating total terror for martins and their young. And there is another pair of Cooper’s hawks from the west though not as active in hunting the martin fledglings so far, but still a threat. Their reign of terror will most likely last until around late July and by then most of the martins will have had fledged their young and soon all will be gone from the area.

Example Two—June 21, 2020, Awesome Long Distance Pursuit Of Martin Fledglings

This kill was the most spectacular one that I observed at the tree so far this year as the female hawk pursued a small flock of martin fledglings that bolted from the tree top and streaked out into the nearby pasture. For a few seconds I thought all the martin fledglings were going to escape. But I was wrong!

At around 2:00 pm several family groups of martin fledglings were scattered about in the tree top while many adult martins flew around the area and others were at both our colonies. It was a scene of tranquility at first but all that would abruptly end!

Suddenly martin alarm cries filled the air as both our colonies erupted in chaos! Screaming martins climbed like rockets into the sky as the Grim Reaper was coming!

I jumped off my front porch and managed to get out into an open area between our two martin colonies. I had a good view of the tree of death and surrounding pasture.

All the martin fledglings in the tree top fled for their lives over the pasture while screaming adult martins mixed with them; other adults climbed up higher to face the deadly killer that was approaching from the northeast!

Several brave possibly parent martins were right behind the female Cooper’s hawk while other adults were above her as she streaked like a bullet after the fledglings!

Within a few seconds after about a hundred yards pursuit over the pasture, the hawk was flying with the fledglings as they began to dive down in a sharp banking action to build up speed and try to out- turn their pursuer. These fledglings were apparently not recent ones and were beginning to develop the flying skills needed to catch their own food and escape from avian predators. But they were trying to escape from a martin fledgling serial killer that NEVER MISSES and these youngsters just didn’t have the speed or agility!

I watched the hawk maneuver like an oversized flycatcher as she used her long tail as a rudder to match every move of a fledgling that was trying to evade the Grim Reaper! The hawk would bank from side to side as the martin fledgling did the same thing and was just inches it seemed from the talons of death!

Incredibly several screaming adult martins, possibly the fledgling’s parents, were following the action and almost right on the hawk’s back and tail as she chased her victim! I just cringe when martins do this as the hawk could any moment bank sharply upward or to the side and possibly snatch one of them!

In a few seconds the hawk had forced the martin fledgling lower down and caught the fledgling at almost ground level as the youngster just seemed to tire out and made no more banking actions. I could see the fledgling hanging from the hawk’s talons.

The hawk didn’t land with her prey in the thick pasture grass though Cooper’s hawks will often go to the ground initially to possibly kill and better position their victim in their talons for carrying in flight.

I watched the hawk carry off the martin fledgling to a dense woodlot to the east of the pasture and about 50 yards from the predation action. Several adult martins mobbed the hawk while still in the open until she disappeared into the trees.

The entire chase had started at around 60 feet high from the top of the tree of death and ended about 100 yards to the south when the hawk caught the martin fledgling close the ground in the open pasture after a twisting pursuit. The fledgling was unable to out fly the hawk initially by speed or finally through banking actions. Adult martins can usually distance a Cooper’s hawk in level flight once martins have attained full flight speed and altitude.

Both male and female hawks of the two pairs are continuing to kill purple martin fledglings at this time and will probably be at it until later in July when nearly all martins in our colonies will be finished nesting, their young independent, and the “easy meat” gone. The days of plenty end and their reign of terror will be over!

Here is a photo of the Grim Reaper’s favorite tree, the tree of death. If you look closely, you may be able to see several martin fledglings in the top area. I could see attacks at this tree from my front porch and our yards. But trying to stop hawk attacks at this tree was impossible!

PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
Posts: 220
Joined: Sun Mar 27, 2016 10:43 am
Location: Sugarcreek, Ohio
Martin Colony History: 2016 First Yr.

My goodness that grim reaper is the benefit of your thoughtfulness, I could not do that he/she would come to its death ....God Bless you for your willingness to donate to the grim reaper !!
2016 - 1st Yr. 14 Compartments 4 Active Nests 9 fledged, 2.25 Fledged per Active Nest
2017 - 2nd Yr. 36 Compartments 18 Active Nests 65 Fledged, 3.61 Fledged per Active Nest
2018 - 3rd Yr. 54 Compartments 43 Active Nests 169 Fledged, 3.93 Fledged per Active Nest
2019 - 4th Yr. 108 Compartments 67 Active Nests 209 Fledged, 3.12 Fledged per Active Nest
2020 - 5th Yr. 108 Compartments 72 Active Nests 243 Fledged, 3.38 Fledged per Active Nest
Posts: 494
Joined: Thu May 26, 2016 9:23 am
Location: tennesse
Martin Colony History: Started colony in 2014. First pair to stay and raise young in 2018.

Wow that was a lot of reading but anyway get you some bottle rockets and a piece of metal pipe about 24”s long and work on your aim. If you can sit their just watch these attacks happen then you can send some bottle rockets that way to disrupt these attacks. There’s no way I would be able to just watch it happen over and over again. If nothing else you may save 1/2 of the fledglings. And maybe train the hawk into hunting else where.
Posts: 119
Joined: Thu Jan 29, 2009 12:05 pm
Location: Covngton, La

Maybe you can cut that tree down.

I too have a hawk that takes some of my martins. I have
spent many hours outside watching out for these birds. Now they have done their thing
for this year, and have gone until next season and it will start all over again.
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