Friday, April 26, 2013

Red-Tailed Hawks, Nest Greenery, and Ants

First Meal
The hatchling red-tailed hawk at Eaglecrest ate its first meal yesterday afternoon. Like bald eagles, red-tailed hawks eat an extraordinary variety of prey. I thought I detected some fur on baby's first meal, but red-tailed hawks also eat birds, reptiles, insects, fish, and carrion. Eaglecrest's wonderful wildlife resources will provide plenty of food for the rapidly growing hawks.

We also saw the hatchling nibbling at the green leaves lining the bottom and sides of the nest bowl. Watchers know that Stitch and Spot regularly replenish the sprigs of small leaves placed haphazardly around the nest. As pretty as it looks, the hawks aren't bringing in greenery for decoration. The aromatic blue oak leaves may mark active territory, discourage parasitic insects such as fleas, ticks, fly maggots, and lice, or perform both functions at the same time.

Repelling Insects
We know that blue oak leaves release a wide variety of volatile organic compounds. A number of them have been identified as possible insect repellents, including isoprene, an oil that reduces thermal stress and repels insects. At least two mechanisms have been suggested for isoprene's repellent properties:
  • Number one: Isoprene hides host plants and animals by interfering with an insect's ability to smell a host. Parasites can't locate hosts hidden in an isoprene haze.
  • Number two: Isoprene repels insects. As the isoprene outgasses from the freshly cut leaves, it ozidizes to terpene, an insecticide. Many insects actively avoid terpene.
Whatever the mechanism, a number of animal species use greenery in and around their nests, burrows, and dens, including twenty-six members of the order falconiformes. Many of them choose highly aromatic leaves and/or bark, suggesting that appearance or appetite alone do not account for the regular delivery of fresh greenery to their homes. We've watched birds go to amazing lengths to build nests and protect their young. Why wouldn't they try to repel parasites and insects? 

Having said that, the leaves don't appear to work on ants. We periodically witnessed ants on and around the nest on April 25, although they didn't appear to be unduly disturbing the hawks. I'm no ant expert, but they appeared fairly small to me. Ants both migrate and swarm, so while may have been attracted to the nest by prey leavings, they also may have been simply passing through. I haven't been able to find much evidence that ants are especially harmful to birds, outside of a few highly specialized species. Some birds even allow themselves to become covered with ants - a practice known as anting that may be yet another defense against parasites. 

Enjoy watching the wildlife at Eaglecrest!

There is some debate about whether or not birds use greenery to repel or reduce parasites. Although I found the evidence to be pretty compelling, a few writers and researchers listed other possibilities, including that hawks are programmed to snip greenery in much the same way they are programmed to build nests, that hawks like greenery in the nest, and that the greenery is the result of hawks snipping branches away to improve sight lines in the nest.

Things that helped me write about this topic: