Warning – disturbing images – hawk kills starling

20 November, 2016            Warning – disturbing images – hawk kills starling

The hawk/starling picture comes a bit below. There’s no blood, but it’s an intense image. In my mind. I’ll open with a decidedly undisturbing image – our cat Dash, mesmerized:

Early humans worshipped the sun. Present-day cats worship fire.

Early humans worshipped the sun. Present-day cats worship fire.

The disturbing picture – disturbing for some of us – comes a few pictures down. There is no blood. Just a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) hunched over the lifeless and staring body of a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) it had just killed. Don’t be thrown off by the word “European” before “Starling” – every starling you ever see, and you see a lot, is a European Starling. They are everywhere, all the time. One of the most common birds in Virginia. A couple of other pictures first. Also, there’s a picture of a snake at the bottom of this post, believe it or not.    

I took a moderate quality picture of a Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) earlier this week. The hawk in this picture has a conspicuous bulge in its chest – that means it has a full “crop,” and had just eaten. Probably a mouse or a rat or a chipmunk. This was the parking lot next to The Westbury Apothecary and the Kroger on East Ridge Road:

Well-fed Red-tail

Well-fed Red-tail

Also this week I photographed a slightly less common Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus). I was driving east on Patterson Avenue around 9:15 AM. I saw this bird in a tree and pulled into the parking lot of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church,  10627 Patterson Avenue. I walked down the driveway and took this picture across Patterson Avenue: 

Patterson Avenue, 9:30 AM:

Patterson Avenue, 9:30 AM:

Notice the first word in their binomial or scientific or Latin name of both the Red-tailed and the Red-shouldered hawk is “Buteo.” Buteos are all big and stocky and have short tails. They are generally “sit and wait” hunters. Their main prey in central Virginia is small mammals, e.g. mice, rats, chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits, etc. The hawk that killed the starling this week was not a buteo but an accipiter – specifically, a Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). Accipiters mostly hunt birds, and they have long tails for maneuvering through trees and underbrush. In this area, since I know where they all hunt, I could photograph a Red-tail 365 days a year. I have never photographed an accipiter – until Friday. I took this picture (it’s not disturbing) just as I arrived:  

Cooper's hawk "mantling" in foreground over a dead starling. Bluejay in the background.

Cooper’s hawk “mantling” in foreground over a dead starling. Bluejay in the background.

The hawk had just killed the starling (when I took the picture I didn’t know that). The bluejay in the background (I also didn’t surmise until later) was waiting around for leftovers. The way the hawk is holding its wings is called “mantling,” and all hawks cover up their prey that way when they’ve made a kill in the open. It’s a signature hawk behavior; Red-tails do it too.

This next picture is the one I find a bit disturbing. That hawk’s open eye staring down at the open eye of that recently deceased starling, every time I look at that it startles me. Wild animals don’t often die in their sleep, and I’ve done a lot of hunting, but this still catches me off guard:

Link in the food chain right there. A very alive hawk and a very dead starling.

A link in the food chain right there. A very alive hawk and a very dead starling.

That was the first time in my life I’d ever seen a Cooper’s Hawk – remarkable. And that life and death scene occurred around 9:15 on a weekday morning about six houses away from a busy road, in a bustling neighborhood. That stuff goes on constantly – it’s hard to believe.

This Christmas Cactus is hard to believe too – and Ev has it blooming enthusiastically in our kitchen. This is just one of probably twenty blooms currently opened up:

Christmas cactus blooming in our kitchen

Christmas cactus blooming in our kitchen

Another thing that’s hard to believe even though I’ve seen it thousands of times is how beautiful our James River is – in downtown Richmond! If you’ve seen one picture of the James you’ve seen ‘em all, but there’s no such thing as a bad one:

My vote for the most refreshing spot in Richmond. Or anywhere else.

My vote for the most refreshing spot in Richmond. Or anywhere else.

Last week the first Buffleheads appeared at Pony Pasture – the most obvious sign of oncoming winter. Today I saw the first two seagulls of the season. In another month there will be dozens or scores. They come up here every winter. I’m not entirely certain why. Maybe because the river doesn’t freeze solid up here. These are Ring-billed gulls  (Larus delawarensis) though the quality of the picture is poor. Better pictures soon:

Pair of ring-billed gulls on the water in the wind

Pair of ring-billed gulls on the water in the wind

There were more buffleheads this week than last – more will continue to appear over the coming weeks:

Buffleheads bobbling mid-stream

Buffleheads bobbing mid-stream

Mackey and Turner and Yuki and I got a surprise this frigid November morning – a snake was blocking our path! My friend Kim said yesterday (high temperature 73º) that probably seemed like a good idea to a snake. Today I don’t think the thermometer got out of the forties and the wind was wild. Not prime reptile weather:

Garter snake sticking its tongue out, smelling the dogs

Garter snake sticking its tongue out, smelling the dogs

Have a great week! All best, 


About Jay McLaughlin

I am a rehabilitation counselor. I have many friends with autism and traumatic brain injuries. They help me learn new things constantly. I hike with dogs at the James River in Richmond - a lot. I've completed an Iron distance triathlon a year for 11 years. My most recent was in Wilmington, NC in November, 2013. I currently compete in mid-distance triathlons. And work and hike and take pictures and write and eat.
This entry was posted in Birds, Blue Jays, buffleheads, cats, Cooper's Hawk, Dogs, firewood, Fun, garter snake, James River, Pony Pasture, raptors, red-shouldered hawks, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!), Snakes and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Warning – disturbing images – hawk kills starling

  1. Bob Parker says:

    Hello Jay,
    Another great post, as usual. I’m as fascinated with hawks as you are. My problem is that I cannot get the quality pictures you seem to come up with on a weekly basis. And, snakes in this weather, who knew??
    When I saw the hawk and starling I thought, better a starling than a native songbird. Which brought to mind your earlier comment about deaths in nature. Garvey Winegar, the late outdoor writer for the RTD, used to say all death in nature is violent. That’s why he only used artificial bait when he went fishing.
    In looking at your pictures of the hawk I started wondering if it might be a Sharp-shinned instead. These two are almost identical to the casual observer. I consulted my Cornell Lab info. Two things that stick our are: Sharp-shinneds are about the size of a jay or dove(first picture), and Cooper’s crowns are darker than the back of the neck where as Sharpies are the same(second).
    An amateur’s thoughts. Would love to know what your other readers think.
    Take care,
    Bob Parker

    • Hi Bob!
      And thanks for the note and your insightful comments. You’re not the first person to suggest that bird might have been a Sharp-shinned hawk. That may be correct.

      In other accipiter news, I’ve lived in this zip code for 25 years and at this house for 15. I have never seen an accipiter. A week ago today I saw that one, ~1.5 miles from my house. 1st I’ve ever seen. Tuesday (11/22) I looked out my office window and saw the 2nd accipiter in my life, sitting on the bird feeder outside my office window. 6′ from the window. This AM Evelyn walks in the living room ~9:30 and says “come look at this” and outside our picture window an accipiter is sitting on our heat pump, eating a freshly killed squirrel. Zero sightings in 25 years, now three sightings in 7 days. Something’s changed! Hope to see more.

      Thanks again for the note and have a great weekend,


      PS And Happy Belated Thanksgiving!

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