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. “


Cooper’s hawks, quintessential Accipitrine stealth predators, transform themselves from hidden to active in an instant. Dan Gauss gets it here.

But how did Audubon do something nearly identical about 175 or more years ago? I will try to find but this is better a search in books than in the electrosphere, books I assume that many of you have…


Thesis: Sydney Vale, not a birder, called a female Sparrowhawk a ‘Goshawk’. See especially the larger female in Liam O’ Broin’s book, lower right.


This year’s raiding Cooper’s– actually a little male– flying straight at Libby and the camera as we relocate him to the Socorro bosque and even more pigeons. He still doesn’t look pleased.


Everywhere, doing their courting flights even in town. My reading indicates Coopers at least are becoming urbanized; the Eurasian gos nests in city parks in Russia. This is the first in my thirty some years here that they have ventured so close to humans this deep into their breeding cycle. The poor pic is of a haggard male Coop in my yard last week, eating a pigeon on one of the doghouses. The good one is of a breeding age female by Carolyn Wilson; she chased a dove into the Wilson’s window. Yes, they are out of town, but not that far or isolated, and the bird’s habits suggest no fear…


Our last winter predator is an adult male Coopers hawk in beautiful plumage, and despite my admiration for his kind I hope he moves on to nest– I don’t relish keeping my pigeons in for very long. He allowed me to get even closer, but this was the best I could do; the photo is not good, because I was standing in bright sunlight that turned the viewfinder into a mirror. Still, he is plainly visible atop the dog house, eating a blue bar homer cross as big as he is. I think it will enlarge.

The bitch is back…

The hag Coopers that is. I am a LITTLE tired of her. She doesn’t take too many pigeons, and the ones she takes are probably not my best (though if any of my occasional flying pouter discussion group are reading, several half pouters of the bulky Spanish kind have so far outflown her), but she keeps them stirred up and nervous, and that’s not really good at the beginning of the breeding season. Also, she goes right inside the loft, kills and eats a pigeon, and sits there staring at you. I like predators, but she’s a little presumptuous.

So this time, we decided to take her five miles south and a couple of hundred feet higher into Hop Canyon, which rises up into the peaks of the Magdalenas. It is a lush riparian canyon and also hosts an affluent subdivision where people feed birds. Finally, I believe her nest site is at the mouth of that canyon, and as it is almost courting season I’m hoping she’ll hang up there even if she’s heading back to my loft.

In sequence below: She bit me! This better be your last time; Ready; Go! Gone…

As you can see. not even a good point and shoot, swung as fast as I could, can catch an angry Accip.


I want a Cooper’s hawk but this one is a breeding adult, too old and too valuable to the population to keep, not to mention illegal. She trapped into my flight loft today and I will release her to make more tomorrow. She weighs nearly a pound, huge for a western Coop, and is a pure Velociraptor. Wonderful word, “haggard”…

She was not pleased