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By Katie Harrington, Hawk Mountain Graduate Student and Former Conservation Science Trainee

10 May 2017

This March I watched three Johnny Rooks feeding in the beached kelp wrack adjacent to a falling tide, with an endless symphonic bray of gentoo penguins in the background. Early afternoon seemed to be the rooks’ final push, as it were, to fill their tanks before tucking in for a late afternoon nap.

03

A fresh bird with a fresh band; welcome to the world K28 Yellow.

While the adult and two juveniles raked with resolve, another rook, band K28 Yellow, walked to within three feet of me. Unlike times before though, it wasn’t staring at me. K28 Yellow, whose plumage betrayed it’s youth–a fledgling, perhaps having only left the nest just six weeks prior– approached a piece of dried “basket kelp” tucked between driftwood and beach cabbage. Without hesitation, K28 “kick-boxed” the kelp and, clinging to the fibrous ball, fell and rolled onto its back. I watched, trying not to laugh, as it pecked at, clawed, and rolled around with the basket for five minutes, doing what I could only call playing.  The raptor, a close relative of the Peregrine and other falcons, reminded me of a puppy consumed with its chew toy.

While extensively studied in mammals, there are far fewer recognized examples of avian play, particularly in raptors. Among birds it is best documented in corvids (e.g. crows and ravens) and parrots.  Raptor examples include object manipulation by a captive-raised goshawk, an observation of a wild marsh hawk playing with its horned lark prey, and aerial acrobatics of bald and imperial eagles.

It’s worth pausing here in light of the genetic revelations of the past decade that place caracaras and falcons next to parrots in the tree of life, rather than alongside hawks and eagles. In fact, when reading about the kea, a parrot found only on New Zealand, you could almost replace their species name with “Johnny Rook” and have it read seamlessly. They, like rooks, are highly social, bold, curious, opportunistic foragers that feed on insects just as readily as seabirds and carcasses. And they play, extensively, with other keas and with inanimate objects. These qualities, along with their approachability, make both them and the Rooks the perfect candidates for studying play in the wild.

This occasion of watching a rook play wasn’t an anomaly. Over the two months I spent on Saunders Island this past austral summer (Feb-March), I watched multiple solitary and social play events across all ages of rooks. One time, another recently fledged bird and an adult played with a sheet of plastic stuck in the sand dunes, again rolling onto their backs as they kicked and pulled. For others, old carcasses, long picked clean became ceremonial tug-of war tools. Given the intensity of local fishing, there were also plenty of cast lines that washed ashore, frayed, half buried, just begging to be played with.

Are the birds learning about their environment, building social bonds, or honing  predatory or stress responses? At this point, we don’t know. Fortunately, our long-term banding project allows us to track this behavior in specific individuals, creating an unprecedented opportunity to understand the adaptive significance of this behavior in a raptor in the wild. And let’s be honest, what’s more endearing than watching a predator kick its talons up and play?

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By Katie Harrington, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Research Associate

and

Dr. Keith L. Bildstein, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science

Many birds of prey time their feeding efforts to take advantage of the cyclic abundance of their prey.  In East Africa, for example, Old World Vultures rush to flight each morning to search for ungulate carcasses created by previous night’s lion and hyena kills.  And in Europe and elsewhere rodent-eating Eurasian Kestrels synchronize their feeding efforts to co-occur with the four-hour activity cycles of voles they feed upon.  Other raptors, including most notably coastal populations of sea eagles and ospreys, set their hunting efforts to coincide with falling tides, taking advantage of the increased vulnerability of fishes in shallow waters created by the receding waters.  And now, thanks to the insightful field observations of former Sanctuary trainee and now graduate student Katie Harrington of San Francisco, raptor biologists can add Striated Caracaras to the list of tidally influenced birds of prey.

Found only on remote islands in Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands, Striated Caracaras, or Johnny Rooks, are aggressive scavenging birds of prey.  Once thought to rummage almost exclusively on dead and dying seabirds and livestock (including penguins and sheep), human leftovers, and occasionally, marine-mammal feces, we have discovered that these cunning birds of prey also take a many kinds of terrestrial invertebrates, including both earthworms and grass grubs, and as well many intertidal invertebrates, including dipteran kelp maggots, limpets, barnacles, and even—believe it or not—octopuses.

Octopus predation 14

The early bird gets… the octopus. The first two rooks on the scene dislodge the marine predator from where it was sheltering in a tide pool and begin consuming its tentacles.

One of the primary efforts of our most recent field efforts on Saunders Island, in the Falkland Islands where roughly 150 Johnny Rooks spend the summer months, was to learn more about the importance of invertebrates in the Rooks’ diet. What factors influence the amount of time Rooks spend foraging for invertebrates each day, and does this strategy provide an ecologically significant amount of nutrition? To find out, we spent hours observing the Rooks raking for maggots in accumulated, decomposing kelp wrack, some determinedly excavating pits six inches deep, and many digging shoulder to shoulder for over an hour. During one mid-afternoon observation session, we observed what appeared to be a shift in their preferred entrée. The Rooks exited the kelp wrack and flew toward an adjacent rocky intertidal zone that was being slowly exposed by the falling tide. First one, then four, then up to twenty birds entered the rocky area, both by flight and by their often-preferred method of walking and running.

Octopus predation 1

In less than a minute, the word is out, and more than 10 Johnny Rooks surround the octopus. Many of the juveniles in this group were banded earlier this year.

Previously submerged, the rocks began to provide a platter of meal options, from blanketing mussels to limpets to innumerable species of invertebrates sheltered under flat rocks. We watched as the rooks began silently and systematically walking along the waterline, peering under overhanging rocks in search of limpets that had not yet suctioned tightly to survive the low tide. Unlike their foraging strategy within the kelp wrack, which can reach as many as fifteen individuals raking within 2 meters of each other, the Rooks searched the intertidal as individuals or in small, mixed-age groups. As the tide fell further, some even alit on the partially exposed adjacent kelp forest, searching the algae’s stipes for potential prey. Their persistence paid off as we watched many quickly consuming their quarry, some within two minutes of their previous catch.

Less than fifteen minutes from the time the Rooks shifted into the area, a juvenile bird encountered a Southern Red Octopus caught in a tide pool. The Rook immediately pulled the octopus up onto a rock where it laid overturned, struggling to right itself as nine juveniles began pulling on and partitioning its tentacles. Within six minutes, more than thirty Rooks encircled the octopus, which had been reduced to portions of its head, with which individual Rooks were then able to abscond. With full crops, the group dispersed, some Rooks sheltered aside nearby ledges to digest while others retreated to a fresh-water seep on the adjacent cliff to wash down the meal.

Previously, the only known predators of the Southern Red Octopus were Southern Sea Lions and humans that opportunistically fish for them during spring tides; yet the speed at which the Rooks dispatched the octopus suggested this was not the first time they had encountered the eight legged invertebrate. Octopus may be clever, but they have met their match in the Johnny Rook.

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Johnny Rooks digging for kelp maggots on the Falkland Islands.

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D., Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
and  Katie Harrington, Hawk Mountain Research Associate
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

29 August 2016

Bear with me on this; it is really quite exciting…

Kelp maggots are the larvae of coastal dipterid flies that feed on rotting seaweeds, including kelp that drifts up along sandy shorelines.  In the northern hemisphere, these larvae (aka maggots) are themselves fed upon by shorebirds and passerines, including crows, which excavate them from kelp wracks that accumulate along the shorelines of sandy beaches.  Although studied little south of the equator, kelp maggots also inhabit the rotting kelp that drifts up along the shorelines of the Falkland Islands, including those on Saunders Island, a 49-square mile landmass in the northwestern part of the archipelago.

Neck Maggot Feeding Summer

Johnny Rooks digging for kelp maggots

For more than four years, we and our colleagues have watched the Striated Caracaras (aka Johnny Rooks) that we have been studying on Saunders Island, digging and probing beached kelp adjacent to penguin colonies there, and have wondered if these largely scavenging birds were receiving ecologically significant amounts of nutrition from the buried invertebrates.  In February of this year, we began to study this feeding behavior in detail using a protocol that allows us to quantify the rate at which individual caracaras secure maggots.  Our observations involve counting the numbers of maggots individual birds catch and consume during 30-sec feeding bouts.  We continued to collect data using this protocol on our most recent trip this August to assess the extent of seasonal differences in feeding rates.  We also collected maggots and weighed them to determine their individual mass, allowing us to determine their nutritional value. Our results, albeit preliminary, suggest that although birds capture maggots at higher rates in austral summer than in austral winter, in both seasons they manage to do so at rates of capture that are high enough to provide substantial nutrition for the birds engaging in this behavior for several hours or more daily.

The dogged determination and methodic nature with which the rooks dig is impressive, with many birds digging alternately with their left and right feet five inches or more into the rotting kelp while securing dozens of maggots over brief periods.  Clearly, more study is needed, but our initial observations suggest that this nutritional resource plays a significant role in the life of Striated Caracaras year round.

Summer maggots

Exposed kelp maggots

Intriguingly, on the most recent trip we also saw groups of rooks digging in upland pastures where they were feeding on what appeared to be small earthworms and grass grubs, with about the same rate of capture as when they were catching kelp maggots.  On our next trip in February 2017, we plan to expand our observations considerably.  In the interim, we will be presenting preliminary results of our work at the annual meeting of the Raptor Research Foundation in Cape May, New Jersey, in October.

Of course, insect eating is not unknown in raptors.  Kites, American Kestrels, and many other falcons routinely do so, as do larger birds including Steppe Eagles overwintering in Africa.  However, digging in the ground for insects is relatively uncommon among birds of prey.  Honey buzzards reportedly do so, and kites and Common Buzzards dig for earthworms in recently plowed fields in Europe.  That said, at least some rooks appear to do it routinely as well, and not only on Saunders Island.  In August 2013, during a short trip to Steeple Jason, a tiny island in the Falklands more than 50 kms from Saunders Island, one of us saw large numbers of caracaras digging for earthworms in peaty soil at the base of the island’s steep escarpment.

Our work with caracaras indicates that they are severely food stressed in winter on the Falklands.  Digging in the ground for invertebrates at first may not seem “raptorly,” but beggars cannot be choosers, and the taste of a live invertebrate may beat that of a rotting vertebrate anyway.

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Red-backed rescue - cropped

Keith rescuing the female Red-backed Hawk from a pack of Striated Caracaras.

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

24 August 2016

With an extensive open-country distribution throughout much of southern South America, Red-backed Hawks are the functional equivalent of North America’s widespread Red-tailed Hawk. The mid-sized Buteo—red-backs weigh in at just over one kilogram, or roughly the same body mass of a Red-tailed Hawk—feeds mainly on small birds and small mammals across much of its continental range.  But on the Falkland Islands, where the species also is common, red-backs focus on Upland Geese, a large terrestrial goose that weighs 3.5 to 4.0 kilograms, or more twice the body mass of a Red-backed Hawk.  Given this rather unusual predator-prey size relationship, red-backs, which are non-migratory on the Falklands and remain paired-bonded throughout the year, hunt geese together in male-female duos with one hawk distracting the goose while other surprises and “takes down” the un-suspecting waterfowl.  In many instances, both members of the pair kill the goose before feeding on it simultaneously, with both gorging themselves and often returning to the carcass for a day or more as they strip every last piece of edible tissue from it.

This cooperative feeding routine works well for the red-backs on the main islands of East and West Falkland, where there are few if any Striated Caracaras to worry about, but such is not the case where the two species co-occur on the smaller, peripheral islands.  Our principal Striated Caracara (aka Johnny Rook) study site, Saunders Island, which is inhabited by several dozen Red-backed Hawks, as well as over 80 Striated Caracaras, is a case in point.  On Saunders Island as elsewhere, caracaras may be incapable of subduing and killing Upland Geese on their own, but they are not above competing for a dead goose once a pair of red-backs have killed it.

Such was the case on Saunders last week when my colleague Katie Harrington and I came upon a pair of Red-backed Hawks feeding upon a recently killed Upland Goose in a sheep meadow at the eastern end of the island one morning earlier this month.  Both hawks, but especially the female, had already gorged themselves on the carcass while cooperatively fending off several dozen, mostly juvenile caracaras that were attempting to partake in the feast. As we approached the group to read the bands on the caracaras—we have fitted more than 1,100 of Johnny Rooks with individually numbered rings as part of our long-term studies of the species—the male red-back took off. The female tried to do the same but was unable to do so given an enormously over-filled crop, which made it impossible while she was being attacked by more than a dozen caracaras that had pinned her down on her back and were feverishly “footing” and pecking at her.  Sensing that she was not long for this world, I jumped off my ATV and ran her down after she broke free from the swarming caracaras.

Keith with red-backed

A close-up of Keith holding the female hawk, with it’s bulging crop.

My decision was instantaneous, our initial approach, which had spawned the male’s successful departure, had left the female vulnerable, and although interfering in nature is not something I typically do, in this case our approach had tipped the competitive balance in this ongoing interaction, and my rescue attempt was aimed at minimizing the consequences.  The carcass was a little more than a kilometer from our cottage at our farm-settlement headquarters, and I remounted my ATV, cradling the hawk in my left hand while steering and thumb-throttling the ATV with my right.  We reached the settlement several minutes later where I placed the female in a dog kennel to give here time to digest her crop peacefully.

Four hours later I released the hawk, who by then had digested about half of food in her crop, but to no avail, as a group for more than a dozen caracaras appeared as out of nowhere and proceeded once again to pin her down in what appeared to be a death grip.  Once more I sped toward the hawk, ran her down, and re-rescued her, placing her back in the kennel with a plan to release her the following morning.

By the time I had grabbed her from the kennel the next day morning, the distended crop was no longer visible, and although half-a-dozen caracaras again initially pursued her, this time they kept their distance, as the lack of a crop most likely signaled them as to the danger in approaching too closely.  After flying off and perching on a fence post for about 5 minutes, the hawk flew off un-pursued in the direction of the goose carcass and her mate.  She was re-sighted at the settlement several days later holding her own against a group of caracaras fighting over a goose carcass that had been fed to the farmer’s pigs.

The sharper talons of the predatory Red-back Hawk make them formidable opponents to the less predatory and less well-armed caracaras—at least when not encumbered by an over-filled crop.  However, when they do have a large crop, the interspecies-competitive relationship changes, and in mid-winter (austral-winter August is the equivalent of boreal-winter February) when both species are hard-pressed for food, it becomes something of a raptor-eat-raptor world on the Falklands Islands where things can change rapidly for individual birds.

Stay tuned… next week I will blog about yet another potential dietary item for food-stressed Johnny Rooks: kelp maggots.

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Skyline drive survey

Our survey vehicle on Skyline Drive in the Shenandoah National Park during our initial survey in the summer of 2005

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

20 July 2016

I realize that I am running a risk with this column in talking about raptor monitoring. Indeed, when I begin to talk about monitoring, my audience often begins to doze off.  If I continue to talk long enough, some may even fall asleep.  Nevertheless, monitoring not only is a useful tool in raptor conservation; it is an essential tool.  When we in raptor conservation fail to monitor populations of birds of prey we often pay a steep and, in some instances, an irreversible cost.

Consider the current plight of the Indian Long-billed and Asian White-rumped Vultures, two species that 40 years ago ranked as the world’s most abundant large raptors.  Both species were then common and widespread throughout southeastern Asia.  When populations of both species crashed by more than 95% in Bharatpur, India in less than two decades in the late 1900s, the problem was thought to be pesticides.  But when similar reports were received for other populations elsewhere in these species wide ranges, a lack of earlier population monitoring made it difficult initially to ascertain the actual magnitude of the declines.

Two vultures that had once been so common that no one thought to monitor the sizes of their populations were now so uncommon that some conservationists were suggesting that they were in the “fast-lane” to extinction.  Half of a very large number is still a very large number, and by the time people were paying attention to these formerly species few knew what their once very large numbers had been.

Eventually conservationists learned the problem was an FDA approved drug, diclofenac, then in use on livestock.  Diclofenac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory substitute for aspirin that, while non-toxic to humans, turned out to be highly toxic to vultures in the genus Gyps.  But without proper population monitoring, we had reached a point where expensive captive breeding was necessary to reverse the trends.  Had we been monitoring these populations earlier, such extreme measures would not have been necessary.

Which brings me to my point.  Monitoring populations of raptors—even common and abundant species—is a critical component of practical and effective raptor conservation.  This is why Hawk Mountain decided to begin doing so with two species of common and widespread New World vultures in 2005.  As of late 2015, the Sanctuary has surveyed Black, Turkey, and other vultures in 23 locations throughout the Americas: from central western Canada in northcentral North America all the way south to Tierra del Fuego in southern South America and the Falkland islands in the South Atlantic.

Our surveys include both winter and summer counts totaling more than 24,000 miles of road counts across 14 United States, 4 Canadian provinces, and 6 central and South American countries.  Surveys are conducted by a driver and one official observer along secondary routes at 30 to 40 miles an hour on rain-less and fog-less days.  Counts begin at nine in the morning and end at four in the afternoon after and before most of the birds have roosted for the evening. In addition to Black and Turkey vultures, all other scavenging birds of prey are counted as well, including all other vultures, condors, and caracaras.

When we began the counts in 2005, the plan was to survey both Turkey Vultures and Black Vultures in representative areas across much of their geographic ranges and to redo the surveys once a decade in both winter and summer, so that populations of both migratory and resident populations of these common scavengers could be monitored routinely. Declines in numbers could be assessed in a timely fashion, and conservation action taken as necessary, before populations had declined catastrophically.

Black bear scvenging a road-killed deer

An unexpected “non-vulture” scavenger feasting on a road-killed deer along Skyline Drive during our second round survey in the summer of 2016.

Round two of our surveys began in early July 2016 when three Summer Field Experience Interns and I redid two day-long road counts in northern Virginia that were originally undertaken in the summer of 2005.  One of the routes was a mountainous 195-kilometer meander along Skyline Drive in the Park Service’s Shenandoah National Park and the northern-most section of the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The other was a 211-km route that followed the eastern shoulder of the upper Shenandoah Valley.  The numbers of vultures sighted were encouraging.  During two days of field work this summer, we counted a total of 253 Tukey Vultures and 14 Black Vultures, versus 124 TVs and 9 BVs seen on the summer 2005 counts.

Although this initial field effort was a modest one, we will ramp-up counts this winter to include 6 routes totaling 963 kilometers in western and central Panama, along with the two winter counts in northern Virgina.  Over the next five years, we plan to re-conduct all of our surveys from west-central Canada south to Tierra del Fuego.  We hope to find that all populations previously surveyed are stable of increasing.  However, if they are not, we plan to put conservation actions into play that will determine the cause or courses for the declines and begin work to reverse them.

Vulture perform important ecological services in the ecosystems they inhabit, not the least of which include nutrient recycling and reducing the likely spread of diseases including botulism, anthrax, and rabies.  Protecting their populations is a critical aspect of Hawk Mountain’s mission, and we plan to stay on top of this.  Our next surveys in Virginia are scheduled for December 2016.  We plan to redo our winter surveys in Panama in January 2017.  Once we have conducted them I will be in touch.

Between then and now let me know if you have any questions on this monitoring effort and how you can support the Sanctuary financially in carrying out this crucial part of our mission. Feel free to email me at Bildstein@hawkmtn.org or call me at 570 943 3411 ext. 108.

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Johnny Rooks rip meat at a carcass. Photo by Keith Bildstein.

Johnny Rooks rip meat at a carcass. All photo by Dr. Keith Bildstein, Hawk Mountain.

By Keith L. Bildstein, Ph.D.
Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science 

Having studied Striated Caracaras–or Johnny Rooks as they are often called–on the Falkland Islands for three years, I have steadfastly defended “my” species against their “flying devils” reputation.  They are in no way “bad birds,” I have told people, but rather are merely curious and, at times, a bit mischievous, but certainly not mean spirited.  But after what happened earlier today I may need to change, or at least temper, my feelings toward these birds.

I bought a 4×4 ATV to help conduct road surveys on 49-sqaure-mile Saunder’s Island last year, and my first “quad-trip” from the farm settlement on the island to the Gentoo Penguin colony this February went off without a hitch. The ten-mile trek across rugged and rocky terrain had taken me more than an hour to complete, and I was eager to survey the penguin colony for color-banded caracaras as part of my ongoing research on their movement ecology on and beyond the island. 

Three un-banded Johnny Rooks met me and the quad at the gate to the penguin colony and I decided to take my ignition key with me just in case the birds had a mind to take my vehicle for a spin.  I then went off on foot for my one hour survey at the colony. 

repaired seat with duct tape racing stripe by keith bildstein

The brand new research quad already sports a duct tape racing stripe.

Forty minutes later, when my quad was once again in view, I noticed that five Johnnies were hopping all over it, and that at least one bird was pulling at the vehicle’s black naugahide seat.  I was still more than half a kilometer away and downhill from the quad, and I decided to continue my search for banded Johnnies and deal with un-banded individuals at the quad once I was done. 

When I closed to within 100 meters of the vehicle, I could see that the birds already had shredded the front edge of the seat cover and that two juvenile Johnnies were alternately pulling out the foam-rubber cushioning and calling out to the others to join in the fun. 

I often tell people that the strongest muscles in a Johnny Rook are its neck muscles, and strong neck muscles enhance their ability to quickly pull meat from penguin carcasses during the feeding frenzies they engage in.  I was now witnessing how they managed to keep those muscles in shape:  in less than an hour my relatively new quad had become an exercise machine, the avian equivalent of a stair-master for the neck. 

I sprinted the last 50 meters to the quad and surveyed the damage.  Dozens of bite-sized pieces of foam rubber were scattered about the machine, as were several long strips of shiny new black naugahide.  The dash board was missing several buttons, including the one that I use to reset the vehicle’s odometer to record distances traveled on my quad surveys, and the area around the ignition lock had been tampered with. 

Looking down at the three remaining birds, I proudly extracted the quad key from my jeans and showed it to them.  “I outsmarted you guys,” I said to myself and placed the key in the ignition slot. But when I turned it, nothing happened. The horn worked just fine, but I couldn’t start the quad, and the idea of a ten-mile walk back to the settlement crossed my mind. 

Not fun and certainly, more than a bit embarrassing. 

Methodically inspecting the quad’s heavily festooned handle bars from left-to-right helped me solve the mystery.  The Johnnies has pulled my emergency stop cord from its mooring and had hidden the critical connecting rubber plug under the cowling that surrounded the quad’s steering column. In less than a minute I reassembled the safety contraption, started the vehicle, took off toward the settlement. 

I spent the rest of the afternoon reupholstering my seat cushion with foam-rubber from my camera’s Pelican Case and an ever-handy roll of duct tape. I then asked my Falkland Island hosts for suggestions on how better to protect my quad from my birds. A heavy-weight burlap bag appeared, together with a handful of bungee cords. Since then, cloaking my quad with burlap has prevented the Johnnies from destroying it. 

burlap covered quad with caracara looking on by keith bildstein

Note to researchers on Saunder’s Island: use burlap and bungee cords to protect your all-terrain vehicles.

The take-home message: Flying devils? No, not really. 

It isn’t every day that a study species teaches a biologist how to take care of his equipment. In fact, I probably owe the Johnnies a favor for setting me straight on how to keep my quad intact. But I do have a suggestion for them. The next time they feel “instructive” I hope that they just write me a note on how to keep my equipment neat and tidy.

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