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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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Dr. Keith Bildstein about to release one of the northern breeders this January.

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

17 March 2017

Most studies of bird migration focus on the movements of birds that ornithologists refer to as “complete migrants,” species whose global populations evacuate their breeding grounds each year while traveling to geographically distant wintering areas.  Although Arctic Terns, Black-and-white Warblers, and Broad-winged Hawks, along with a small percentage of other species of migratory birds, do follow this pattern, most migratory species of birds are “partial migrants,” species whose populations include both sometimes-migratory and non-migratory individuals, and whose migratory populations sometime overwinter in areas already occupied by non-migratory members of the same species.  It turns out that partial migration is a lot more complicated than complete migration, and although the former is little studied compared with the latter, its complexity makes it a lot more intriguing, as well as a lot more challenging, both to investigate and to understand.

New World Turkey Vultures are a good example of partial migrants, with some populations consisting entirely of migratory individuals, whereas other populations consist of both migratory and non-migratory individuals, and still other populations consisting entirely of non-migratory individuals.  The degree to which different populations of Turkey Vultures interact, and the effects they have on each other is not well known.  One place where such interactions have been explored is in the Llanos, the enormous freshwater wetland of central Venezuela, where Turkey Vulture migrants from western North America, which are larger and more massive than the region’s non-migratory, year-round residents, displace the latter from the best available habitats and gain weight after their arrival while the supplanted residents simultaneously lose weight.  Indeed, the so-called Llanos “residents” appeared to “migrate reciprocally” to avoid competing with of the larger North American birds.

But what happens in areas in which some breeders migrate south in autumn, whereas other stay put, while still others from more northern breeding sites migrate into the region and over-winter there?  Such is the case in the Sonoran Desert of southwestern Arizona, where members of the breeding population include both migrants and non-migrants of the aura race of Turkey Vultures, whereas as the winter-only individuals are migrants from the larger and more massive meridionalis race from farther north.  (Note: There are six subspecies of Turkey Vultures, three that breed in North America, along with two that breed in Central America, and three that breed in South America.)

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Keith and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Senior Researcher Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien fitting a satellite to one of the norther breeders this January.

We began satellite tracking members of the Sonoran Desert breeding race in 2014 and have followed the movements of nine birds since then.  All but one have proved to be migratory, with some individuals overwintering consistently in Mexico, whereas other have overwintered consistently either in Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, or Colombia.  In late January of this year my Hawk Mountain colleague, Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien, and I traveled to our tapping site outside of Phoenix and successfully trapped two winter-only individuals of the meridionalis race of Turkey Vultures.  Although we don’t know exactly where these two breed, as of early-March one was on Vancouver Island in south western most Canada, and the other was in Death Valley California in late March, with both north of their Arizona trapping site.

Tracking the movement of all of these Sonoran birds for several years will allow us to determine if the northern breeders crowd out the smaller year-round residents from Arizona, and if so, whether or not the smaller southern migrants leave in autumn in advance of the arrival of the larger northern migrants and time their returns to avoid the departing northern migrants in spring.

Although this may seem a bit esoteric to some, understanding the extent to which the two subspecies interact in the Sonoran Desert has important implication for conservation.  Suppose, for example, that in Arizona the larger northern breeders consistently dominate the smaller southern breeders.  If so, the size of the former’s populations could limit the size of the latter’s, particularly in winter when food may be limiting.  If so, the fate of the latter would be affected by the fate of the former.  Thus, if global change were to affect the former–either positively or negatively–the latter might “respond” as well, albeit indirectly, in-kind.  Although, all of this remains highly speculative, the extent, if any, to which populations of the two races merits examination, and I very much look forward to doing so over the course of the next few years.

I will keep you posted of the arrivals and departures of both our “northern” and “southern” Arizona migrants this summer.

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

12 December 2016

We typically characterize vultures as gluttonous creatures, obligate scavenging birds of prey that engage in rough-and tumble feeding frenzies at large ungulate and pachyderm carcasses in the company of dozens of other “all consuming” vultures, scarfing up enough meat to last for several days.  And indeed, vultures sometimes eat so much food that they remain grounded for an hour or more after feeding for partial digestion to take place, before they are light enough to take off.  Having watched these birds feed for many years, I can tell you that all of this is true.  But watching vultures at so-called “vulture restaurants,” where humans routinely provide food, sheds light on an aspect of vulture feeding that goes largely unrecognized by the general public.

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The vulture restaurant at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre in northeastern South Africa after dinner is served. Note the Marabou Storks in the foreground and the ling-necked African White-backed Vultures in the background. Hoodies are nowhere to be seen in the initial scrum.

In fact, some vultures are “finicky” as well as “voracious,” feeders; especially at vulture restaurants where daily meals are typical.  The world’s first vulture restaurant, in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa opened in the 1960s to help supplement the diets of local Bearded Vultures.  Today, vultures restaurants (bird feeders for vultures, if you will) are used to provide “clean,” lead-free meat to recently released California Condors in the American West.  Many of the restaurants are associated with ecotourism, serving a useful purpose in bringing vultures and people together.  One such restaurant at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre near Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa has been feeding wild vultures and other scavenging birds for more than 30 years.  The restaurant works well at attracting handfuls of Pied Crows and Black Kites, dozens of Marabou Storks and Hooded Vultures, and hundreds of African White-backed Vultures, the latter two of which are now Critically Endangered.

Earlier this month, University of KwaZulu-Natal post-doctoral student and Hawk Mountain research associate, Dr. Lindy Thompson, and I spent four days at the Centre near Hoedspruit trying to catch Hooded Vultures.  During that time we learned a lot about the finicky feeding behavior of the birds.  Our goal was simple enough: catch as many as three of the Hooded Vultures visiting the restaurant, and fit them with satellite-tracking devices that would allow us to monitor the movement ecology of the species, including information on how dependent individuals were on vulture restaurants in the region versus how much time they spent in the nearby Kruger National Park feeding on native wildlife, and how they interacted with other species in the region.

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Dr. Lindy Thompson, releasing “Don King” after his capture in February. Note his downy top-knot and relatively thin bill.

We already had caught and fitted 10 Hooded Vultures with tracking devices in South Africa, and two of our previously tagged birds actually showed up at the restaurant during our four days of observation, even though neither has been tagged there.  One of the two, Don King, had been caught at a private nature reserve 45 miles north of the Hoedspruit restaurant in February of 2016.  Don looked healthy enough, although he had lost his downy top-knot that led to its name.  The second tagged bird, Mopane, had been caught in Kruger National Park about 60 miles northeast of the restaurant in August of 2014.   It, too, looked quite healthy.

The two marked birds were joined by about 30 unmarked individuals that visited the restaurant daily.  Unfortunately we were unable to capture any of them.  We did snare several of the far larger African White-backed Vultures that clearly dominated the smaller “hoodies” at the restaurant’s offerings.   Hooded Vultures, it turns out, are finicky feeders when feeding in the company of White-backed Vultures, pecking at and gleaning only tiny scraps of meat with their small, thin bills, after the meat had been torn apart by the larger white backs during feeding frenzies.  By the time the hoodies got close enough to our traps, the snares we had set already had been pulled closed by the white-backs, making capturing the former all-but-impossible.

Lindy Thompson and Andre Botha of the South African Endangered Wildlife Trust will try to capture the hoodies at other feeding sites that attract fewer white backs.   Older elephant carcasses work well for this purpose, as they often continue to be visited by the more fastidious hoodies for several days after larger vultures, hyenas, and jackals have stripped most of the flesh from carcass.

The finicky feeding behavior of hoodies is well known among those of us that study the birds.  It appears that hoodies have instituted their own specialized feeding niche, one that involves “cleaning up” after the larger and less finicky species.  Although this makes hoodies a bit more difficult to capture, it is somewhat endearing as well.  As I see it, a vulture that cleans up after other vultures can’t help but be appreciated.

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