Libby’s Accident (and the Urban Accipiter Phenomenon)

By now at least half the town knows that Lib fell off a ladder tending to the pigeons in the “trap” on top of the pigeon loft. I use “trap” in quotes, because normally it is a pigeon racer’s term for sort of double entrance chamber used in racing pigeon competitions to control access. But in this case we have been trying to catch and remove two first year’s “Urban Coopers” who have set up on my loft and, so far this late summer and fall, have killed over twenty pigeons from the flight loft.

A writer to the Magdalena E- Board says the following: “If that’s not a joke about the hawk and the pigeon, let me give you the ornithological point of view. Let nature take its course. Hawks are predators and need to kill smaller birds to feed themselves and their offspring. A certain group of hawks called Accipiters prey almost exclusively on other birds. Let them do it. It’s nature’s way.”

I don’t know quite where to start. As anyone knows,I am more than familiar with Accips, having flown two subspecies of Goshawks in four states and having seen` them flown in five countries.

But “Nature’s Way”? The Urban Accipiter is a brand new, human- influenced phenomenon. In Asia and eastern Europe, as documented ably by England’s Conor Jameson in his book Looking for the Goshawk; Gosses, a near- wilderness species in western North America (you can find pairs in The San Mateos near Grassy Lookout, and in the Magdalenas up the canyon from the Water Canyon Peregrine nest in wet years), are now common inhabitants of urban parks, even in Moscow and East Germany. The great Russian wildlife artist Vadim Gorbatov,who has painted quail on Lee Henderson’s ranch, done Water Canyon as a backdrop for a children’s book on Peregrine reintroduction,

and who drank that”good Mexicanski vodka” (tequila) at the Spur, lives in a Moscow high- rise, and painted his resident Gos catching a hooded crow in front of his apartment for my book,At the Edge of the Wild

We don’t know why Goshawks are invading the cities, but we do know something about Coopers. The phenomenon was first noticed in the early 90’s in Tucson, when a University of Arizona study of the Coopers hawk there revealed the then-astounding number of 160 pairs within metropolitan Tucson’s boundaries. The population then was unhealthy, though large. The hawks were living entirely on urban feral pigeon and the unnaturally large population of white- winged, Aztec,and ground doves which the city, with its water and plantings, attracted. These birds had endemic Trichomonas gallinae, a disease which did not harm the pigeons much but killed the predators. Only the resistant hawks survived, and once the population became resistant, it nearly tripled, to a density unknown in any wild situation. The species received a second winnowing from West Nile disease, which killed as many as 7/8 of the raptors (not just Coops)that got it. The resulting urban populations have doubtless been genetically changed to one with the disease resistant genes. They have also changed their habits– I’d bet that they don’t interbreed with their mountain cousins much. This kind of “voluntary” isolating mechanism is just how Menno Schilthuizen suggested that sympatric speciation, far rarer than allopatric, could take place (in Frogs, Flies, and Dandelions— he even convinced scary old Ernst Mayr, in his nineties at the time!)

This is all for bio- wonks. Practical point is, there are probably a THOUSAND pairs in the Rio Grande Bosque, nesting in people’s backyards and making pests of themselves dive- bombing runners (both my female doctors have been attacked by them in Albuquerque– luckily even a big western female doesn’t weigh more than a male homing pigeon, though their long tails can make them look as big as Goshawks. They are utterly without fear. Even the wilderness ones are bold; I once watched a female in Copper canyon roll a skulking raven twice her size that had been searching for nests three times, like a leopard attacking a bear. These ones are ridiculous; Lib poked the male with a stick and he just SAT there, and as she was doing this, the female cut in and carried off a pigeon! If they were the size of Crowned eagles, we’d all be carrying ten- bore shotguns or howdah pistols. They have also moved uphill (not down I think) to live in Magdalena. Until five years ago or so Coopers lived only in the the mountains, nesting in deciduous trees in the canyon bottoms, and rarely attacked my pigeons (I have been here 36 years). In the last couple of years they have become a problem. This particular young unmated “pair”, birds born this spring, learned to hunt on (mostly my) domestic pigeons and the infernal exotic Eurasian Collared doves, which in the last decade have replaced the “natural” southern invasive White wings (up from Texas and Arizona naturally, not coming from the east in an invasive wave). The pair have killed so many of my flying pigeon flock is threatened. As a falconer, I can legally trap raptors, and I see no difficulty in catching them and releasing them in Socorro, where they can eat feral pigeons to their content and not both my highly bred, expensive fliers.

So LIbby was up on a ladder putting water in to the birds in the trap, when the ladder broke and she fell between the halves. (I had been up there the day before and had warned her it was shaky). Luckily our friend Kim, who has been helping us with animals the past couple of weeks, was there, because I was inside working. At the Emergency Room, they found that she had lost two teeth, broken a rib, and needed several stitches on her face. She remains in a good mood with the help of Nurse Ataika, but it turns out we we were lucky to have missed getting our pup last week as it would have been a pretty hairy situation…

“… nature is portrayed poorly whenever harmony is implied.” _ Aussie ornithologist Tim Low.

UPDATE on hawks courtesy of Paul Domski: “Brian [Milsap, USFWS biologist] said that if you are standing at a Coop nest, there are 4 others within a 1/2 mile, or something close to that. “

19 thoughts on “Libby’s Accident (and the Urban Accipiter Phenomenon)”

  1. Steve,
    Did you mean Conor Jameson's "Looking for the Goshawk" in your post? I wrote a review of that book published in Wilson Journal of Ornithology a couple of years ago. I'm sorry for Libby's accident and I hope she feels better soon.

  2. Sorry for Lib's fall! Get well soon!

    Steve, Brian Millsap studies a population of nesting Coops in Albuquerque with several dozen pair nesting in the city. It's possible some of the wintering birds that eat your pigeons have his bands on them…

  3. Oh Libby, so sorry to hear about your fall. Darn hawks and pigeons anyway. Get some young sprout to do that sort of ladder climbing next time. And make Steve get you all the ice cream you want. Be well.


  4. Oh Libby

    What rotten luck! Looks really painful.
    June and I both hope you have a swift recovery.
    Ladders and "us elderly's" are not best bedfellows!- especially if at all rickety!. I am afraid that "now I is a septuagenarian", I reluctantly get a man in to do any aerial activities…….
    Hope you get pampered , and a few nice Malts to speed recovery !…..


  5. Very sorry to hear that Libby was injured, I fully commiserate with her and wish for a complete and speedy recovery.

    Who was the bumptious jack-ass who presumed to lecture you on "the ornithological point of view"? Que pendejo!


  6. I slipped on the ice stepping off my front porch and busted up my leg a couple years ago; when people asked me what happed I said I was injured pushing an old lady out of the way of a speeding car. Think up a good story and get well soon!

  7. All good wishes for speedy recovery to Libby –

    No doubt all the talk of the birds is of comfort – but –
    I agree, the hound beside you and maybe Netflix (Last Tango in Halifax perhaps?) and some tea……

    Please take good care.

  8. Thanks all! Margory- all the bird talk to deflect the new woman, who I was afraid would cause me trouble. We are all legal but the LAST thing I need is stopping work, care etc to answer complaints!

  9. All our best to Libby!

    And yes to everything you said on urban Cooper's hawks. They've picked off a couple of our chickens, I'm pretty sure; the survivors are almost comically cover-oriented now…

    A number of years ago, some friends of mine in the Nebraska falconry community wanted to pull eyass Cooper's hawks and were told that there were insufficient data available to allow the take. "Find me five nests," they were told by the state man. When they brought him the locations, he said "Okay, now find me five more." They gave up and pulled Cooper's from a nest out of state. Now we could easily find five or ten just within the Lincoln city limits…one of which (if active again this year) is immediately adjacent to the Game and Parks Commission HQ.

  10. Jesus — that's a SERIOUS fall. Best wishes for a speedy recovery for Libby, if that is at all possible after such a serious smash šŸ™

    I was sent this picture of a red-tail i Nyack this morning.

    Howdah pistols! We'd see those in the markets in North Africa some times — not sure what used for, but we'd see weird stuff from all over, such as whale bones in Marrakesh. Things travel, and not all of them are people.


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