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Good catch, goshawk

Posted: September 27, 2012 - 11:00pm
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On the doorstep of the Alaskan Fudge Company, a juvenile female goshawk feeds on a pigeon Tuesday. Local expert Kim Titus said fall is a tough time to be a bird of prey and pigeons can be tough quarry for immature birds.  Photo courtesy of Janet Lassiter
Photo courtesy of Janet Lassiter
On the doorstep of the Alaskan Fudge Company, a juvenile female goshawk feeds on a pigeon Tuesday. Local expert Kim Titus said fall is a tough time to be a bird of prey and pigeons can be tough quarry for immature birds.

Feathers were flying and gawkers gawking this week as a goshawk dined on pigeons in the middle of a downtown Juneau sidewalk.

At least twice the juvenile female bird of prey was spotted with its pigeon quarry — once on the doorstep of the Alaskan Fudge Company and again in the middle of the sidewalk between the Alaskan Brewing Co. Depot and Ad Lib.

Certainly the bird was doing what birds of prey do: hunting and feasting.

But why it chose downtown as its hunting grounds was a bit of a mystery.

Kim Titus, a chief wildlife scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, had answers.

Fall is a tough time to be a bird of prey, he said. And goshawks ending up in urban areas do happen. And while goshawks are found in the Juneau area, they are a bit of an unusual sighting. Spotting one downtown, is even more exceptional.

Titus said its presence there is mostly tied to food availability and for Southeast Alaskan goshawks — who typically find meals of red squirrel, grouse and ptarmigan — their options are becoming scarce. Most often these birds target the aforementioned squirrel or smaller birds, such as juvenile robins and thrushes, for instance. But those birds have all likely migrated south for the winter by now, Titus said.

But the pigeons remain. And while they are not exactly easy to catch, Titus said, they do make for a tasty, albeit risky meal.

“Pigeons are a tough quarry for a goshawk,” Titus said. “They often occur in large groups, so there’s more than one set of eyes and they are really fast.”

He said the bird likely catches only one meal for every 50 pursued.

Titus studied goshawks in the Juneau area from the mid-90s to roughly 2002. At the time, there was talk the bird should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, so government agencies were doing their homework, so to speak, to better understand the bird. Titus, who also holds a PH.D, used to be an avid falconer, as well, before coming to Juneau.

By looking at the pictures taken by locals who spotted the bird downtown, Titus said he’s sure it is a female — based on its size — and that it’s a juvenile bird. The mottled brown markings are a giveaway.

“She likely hatched this May,” he said. “There are a handful of permanent nesting sites in the Juneau area.”

But the most-likely reason for her to be downtown, he said, is because she just doesn’t know any better.

“This is the time when goshawks disperse,” he said. “They are completely independent and it’s the time of year that they either learn to kill or they die.”

Yes, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, Titus said, for sub-adult birds.

Should the bird be spotted again feasting in the middle of a sidewalk, for example, Titus recommended just letting the bird eat.

It’s done the work, after all.

“What it really wants to do is fly away with it,” Titus said. “But the pigeon is too big for it to do so. The bird weighs a pound and a half. Give it its space. Let it eat.”

Goshawks will also kill ducks and other waterfowl, but they are mostly built to hunt in the forest, he said. Most birds prefer areas where there is a little human activity. And juveniles, like the one spotted, will turn slate grey, with a light underbelly within one years time — if she survives the winter.

Hopefully, after a few more meals of pigeons, the upcoming cold winter months will be a little easier to tolerate.

 

• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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