Awesome Sharp-shinned Hawk Attack On Female Purple Martin…And Guess What Probably Saved Her Life?

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Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

Friday morning, February 21, 2020 in northwest Louisiana. Sunny skies but cold outside. But the sunshine is a most welcome respite from the nasty cold rainy weather for the last two days.

Nothing really special about this morning but something was brewing high in the sky to the south. A violent storm was approaching and soon a female purple martin would be flying for her life.

My purple martins had endured two days of cold rainy weather but did just fine. They were flying around the colony and socializing this morning. The sunshine was probably the key to this activity and seemed to energize them.

Right now, there may be 50+ martins in my colony but it is impossible to count them so this is just an educated guess. Bob my next door neighbor may have a dozen martins in his colony.

At around 10:00 am I was on my front porch observing the martins when I noticed they had become rather anxious and some bolted and climbed high over my colony. Several martins quickly entered their nests. Something was disturbing them and I wondered if the Grim Reaper was perhaps on the prowl and coming for a visit.

Suddenly my bluebird pair which nests in a bird house about 50 feet from my martin colony began to emit their bird-eating hawk alarm vocalization. This vocalization sounds like a high pitch whistle that is emitted in long bursts. I have heard this vocalization many times and it often means the Grim Reaper has arrived!

More martins now fled including a pair from one of my gourd racks and began to climb at about a 45 degree angle toward the north and Bob’s colony. The female martin was in the lead and the male followed.

Then both martins began to fly erratically and continued to climb at a high rate of speed. I now knew something was very wrong as other martins were emitting blood curdling screams of terror!

The female martin quickly changed her flying position and abruptly banked sharply downward. I didn’t see what the male had done. Both martins were about 200 feet high up.

And out of nowhere came the Grim Reaper which was ABOVE the martins and they had been climbing directly into its dive! This is one of the worst positions a martin can be in when a bird-eating Accipiter hawk is ABOVE and coming straight for you!

In an incredible series of banking actions the female martin dived toward the ground above Bob’s colony and the female sharp-shinned hawk was right on her tail, matching every turn! The hawk’s short rounded wings look like mallets and I could see for just a second the long square tail open up and functioning as a rudder! These physical characteristics and the size told the Grim Reaper was a female sharp-shinned hawk.

I just knew the martin was doomed as the hawk was not giving up and forcing the martin lower toward the ground in a spiraling pressure tactic. The martin and hawk were moving at incredible speeds and looked like they were trapped inside some kind of spinning vortex! This action will keep the hawk above the martin and pressures the martin closer and closer toward ground. Then the hawk has a better chance of grabbing the martin and pinning it to the ground.

But just when I thought the hawk would snatch the martin, a miracle happened. The martin was at the periphery of Bob’s colony and not far from one of my martin decoys on about a six foot tall garden stake. The hawk for some reason grabbed the “slow” martin decoy and the female martin pulled straight up into an almost 90 degree angle and literally shot like a rocket into the sky!

The hawk gave that decoy a good work over but plastic is not that edible or easy to grip! She hovered a few seconds around it and then landed on the ground underneath the decoy. Since I was concerned that maybe some of Bob’s martins may decide to come out and be vulnerable, I rushed toward the hawk and she flew off into a nearby woodlot.

This attack by a sharp-shinned hawk on a martin was rather spectacular. The attack began about 200 feet off the ground and completely in the open. This hawk knew how to hunt martins higher up by keeping up a pressure on the selected martin and forcing the martin down toward the ground. The closer to the ground the better the chance the hawk can make a kill.

Martins are almost invincible higher up in the sky when being attacked by Accipiter hawks as long as the martins are aware of the hawks, have room to maneuver and can eventually gain altitude. In this attack the hawk was ABOVE the martin and forcing her lower down so the hawk had the advantage. I have only seen a few high altitude attacks by Accipiter hawks on martins and all were unsuccessful. Most of their attacks are ambush hunts around the martin colony, often in the early mornings or evenings in dim light conditions.

I have seen one other attack by a Cooper’s hawk that dived on my martin colony, selected a fleeing male martin, but then turned from the martin to a martin decoy and the real martin escaped. It was most satisfying to see the martin escape and the hawk grabbing the martin decoy!

Here are two photos of the martin decoy that may have saved the real martin’s life. One photo shows the decoy on the garden stake. This decoy is about 30 feet from Bob’s colony and completely out in the open. The other photo shows a close-up of the back of the decoy revealing scratch marks from the hawk’s talons! Many of my martin decoys have their “attack wounds”! I would encourage folks to try a few martin and dove decoys around their martin colonies to help deflect Accipiter hawks and merlins (small migrant falcons in our area) from the real martins. These decoys have truly helped save my martins a number of times. The martin decoys have attracted Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks and merlins. Only the larger Cooper’s hawks have attacked the mourning dove decoys that I have seen.


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Last edited by Steve Kroenke on Sat Feb 22, 2020 11:03 am, edited 2 times in total.
PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
deancamp
Posts: 412
Joined: Wed Mar 16, 2016 9:17 pm
Location: Raymore, MO

Good story Steve, must have been spectacular to watch. Many thanks to " your stunt double" the decoy.
Geno
Posts: 14
Joined: Mon Feb 17, 2020 9:06 am
Location: Tuscaloosa

Good deal. Too bad it's illegal to shoot them.
Mike Mack
Posts: 42
Joined: Mon Jan 27, 2020 11:56 pm
Location: Centex

Great read, thanks.
mjfog
Posts: 233
Joined: Sat Dec 30, 2017 3:40 pm
Location: Palm City, FL
Martin Colony History: 2018 will be my first try. 6 S&K B09s. 29 eggs - 8 fledged
2019 - 12 Troyer Horizontals with tunnels, 6 S&K B09s and 12 B011s all with tunnels. 43 eggs - 36 fledged
2020 - Rack 1 - 6 B011s, Rack 2 - 24 B011s, and Rack 3 - 24 Troyer Horizontals. All gourds have tunnels, porches and crescent/Conley 11 entrances; racks have predator guards. 161 eggs - 88 fledged

Steve,
Ever try writing for a hobby? Your descriptive narrative is on par with that of James Lee Burke; the New Iberia author who writes about all the Louisiana crazies south of I-10. Considering the buffet we martin colony providers offer, we should expect and even admire an accipiter's or merlin's occasional kill after such a spectacular attempt. As an old retired Wildlife Biologist, I certainly do. Hell, we provide predators a proverbial food bar so we should expect some kills even if some of those creatures are, or were, some of "your or our martins." Just remember it's the total good we do for the species, both martins and predators.
Geno - shame on you. Keep your shotgun only for clay birds or legal game. Hawks and owls are off limits.
Let's all do what we can to legally protect our martins from predators (even snakes!). All God's creatures gotta eat but all bets are off for starlings and house sparrows!
Happy Martining, Geaux Tigers and Happy Mardi Gras to all you Louisiana martiners.
gray fox
Posts: 115
Joined: Thu Feb 04, 2016 8:13 am
Location: Tyrone, PA

I agree with the Old Wildlife Biologist.
LisaJ
Posts: 74
Joined: Fri Apr 06, 2018 9:47 am
Location: North Texas

WOW! That was a great story with the pm as the victor!! :grin:
Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

I am glad folks enjoyed the article! This attack by a sharp-shinned hawk was probably the most intense I have ever seen by this species of Accipiter. Most sharp-shinned hawk attacks on martins at our colonies are low level ambushes where the hawk tries to catch a martin off guard inside or near the colony site. Both sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks mainly hunt by stealth and are particularly skilled at hunting martins in dim light conditions of the early mornings and evenings. The hawks will appear like ghosts from the darkness inside a martin colony and try to grab a martin that often has no idea where the Grim Reaper is until it is too late! And many times the human landlord who may be out will not see the hawks until it’s too late!

But both hawks will dive down into martin colonies from higher up and exploit the chaos and confusion of martins scattering and try to catch a martin. Neither one of these hawks will usually pursue martins for long distance tail chases as martins can often build up sufficient speed to escape. These hawks are more suited for short distance high speed chases involving lots of turns and banking actions as they use their long tails as rudders. They are almost like over-sized flycatchers as they follow every banking action and turn of their prey.

Both hawks will plunge with reckless abandon into trees, bushes and thickets after birds and have seen them do this and wondered how in the world will they survive! But they do!

Generally speaking, the Accipiters are faster on takeoff and short distance chases at low altitudes than martins which are faster in longer pursuits and higher up in the sky. The short rounded wings of the Accipiter have an explosive acceleration rate while the longer pointed wings of the martin are superior in sustained flight over longer distances, particular at higher altitudes. Martins can fly circles around Accipiters high up in the sky and readily mob them.

Probably no martin landlord wants to see his/her martins under attack by predators. But there is a law of the jungle that says large concentrations of prey will attract predators and a martin colony fits that situation. Using martin and dove decoys scattered around your martin colony or even attached to the gourd racks and houses can help to minimize successful predation by bird eating raptors. Closely monitoring your colony during the early mornings when martins are first “getting up” and going to roost in evenings can sometimes keep Accipiters from attacking. But these hawks will still often come into a martin colony even with the landlord fully visible and just yards away from the housing! I have managed to thwart attacks at times but in other cases the hawks seem to ignore me and attack anyway! But I “put my martins to bed” every night when I can and stay around the edge of my colony while watching for Accipiter hawks. Trying to keep the area around your colony as open as possible so that Accipiters have a more difficult time hiding in trees or approaching undetected can minimize the success of hawks.

I enjoy observing nature, particularly my martin colonies, as close as possible. Then I enjoy sharing my observations in descriptive detail so that folks can have a “feel” of what happened! I have posted many articles on the Forum over the years and have now been doing so on Facebook. I hope to continue posting my observations on the Forum as long as I can!

Steve
PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
mwren
Posts: 108
Joined: Tue Mar 17, 2015 2:43 pm
Location: OH/Athens
Martin Colony History: I have had my martin colony on the dam of one of my ponds for nine years. The colony has grown each year, but I am now concentrating on helping friends and acquaintances who have shown interests in martins. My colony consists of three T-14's with 8 Troyer gourds attatched to each T-14, a Troyer gourd rack with 12 gourds, and another gourd rack with 18 Troyer gourds for a total of 96 nest cavities. I am having serious predation issues with hawks and owls and am experimenting with various hawk guards and "screens". Established successful supplemental feeding last season during late march and had a blast flipping mostly meal worms and some crickets. Faculty from Ohio University are using my colony as a research site to study parasites that target cavity nesting birds. In exchange for access to my bird trail nest boxes and martin housing, they are banding all birds involved in their study.

One of the problems of having a large colony is the reality that you and your birds are ringing the dinner bell for a number of predators. The attacks by Sharp Shinns and Coopers are spectacular but frightening to witness up close and personal. I have had one of these hawks launch an attack while I was standing in the middle of the colony, and within 10 feet of the chase.! I agree with Steve"s encouragement to scatter decoys around the colony in an attempt to distract and confuse the "attack radar" that these F-16 like accipiters seem to possess. I use the martin decoys that you can purchase from the PMCA, but wish they had a better way to fasten them to perches or poles. I also use dove decoys that come with very effecient clips for easy mounting that makes changing your "set up" easier to do.
I also agree with Steve's logic for spending as much time in and around your colony early in the morning and in the early evening hours when these predators are agressively active and hungry. Sometimes your presence may discourage an attack, but as I described earlier, other times they may pay no attention to you, and attack at anytime!
Mike "Bird" Wren
colliemom
Posts: 36
Joined: Fri Mar 18, 2016 10:13 am
Location: Sandwich IL

Hi Steve,
We were near your place a couple of weeks ago; was going to stop by for my martin fix but
ended up hurrying out of there to beat the next weather system. Would have liked to have seen
how you have your decoys placed around your colony. Do you have pictures showing the decoys
in relation to the houses and gourd racks? What is that you are using for poles for the decoys
and how are you attaching them? I have always put them on the perches on the racks and on the
bed and breakfast; they really take a beating every year. Think I'm ready for some new ones.
Every year most of them end up hanging upside down by the end of the season. Hard to get to
the ones on the top of the racks; thought your method might work better.

We're in Pigeon Forge, TN right now getting rehab for my collie. I lost one last year. It's been
snowing here and supposed to snow again next week. Not sure if we'll make it back your way
this year or not. If not, maybe next year. I always enjoy stopping to see your birds on our
way home from winter trips.

Really enjoyed your description of the attack. Sure glad that little girl escaped!

Have a good season!

Alice
Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

mwren,

Thanks for sharing your experiences with Accipiter hawk attacks on your martins.

Large martin colonies do attract predators and offer more opportunities for predators, but in these colonies there are more eyes watching for danger and this can help to warn martins of an imminent attack.

I have talked with folks who have small or medium size martin colonies and Accipiter hawks attack these, too.

I do believe these hawks are learning to associate martin houses and gourd racks with food and when they see a colony they check it out. I have seen Cooper's hawks land on my lowered gourd racks during the fall and I believe I know what they are looking for!

With my martin decoys, I drill about a 3/8 inch hole in the bottom and then tightly push the garden stake or what pole I am using, up into the decoy. This holds the decoy in place and keeps it stable. So far no hawk has been able to pull one off and I have seen large female Cooper's hawk try hard! This approach probably only works with a stake/pole using a vertical application.

Speaking of these hawks ignoring you...last year one evening a Cooper's hawk came from behind me and just over my head and I could feel the "rush of air"! The hawk fortunately miss a martin and kept on going!

Thanks again for your comments.

Alice,

I have enjoyed your visits in the past! I remember the last visit you had your beautiful dogs with you. So sorry you lost one.

The weather has been so nasty around here with rain and cold temperatures. My yard around the martin houses/gourd racks is very wet and unpleasant to walk in!

I drill about a 3/8 inch hole in the bottom of my martin decoys and then push a garden stake or some other pole/rod tightly up in the decoy. You may have to ream out the hole more to fit the stake you are using. This keeps the decoy stabilized and so far NO hawk including several aggressive large female Cooper's hawks have been able to pull them off. This approach may only work with stakes/poles and is a vertical application for decoy placement.

I scatter my decoy poles on mainly 6 foot garden stakes, sometimes fastening two together with zip ties, around the perimeter of my martin colony. I have used solid aluminum rods, too. I do have a few inside the colony. Most are from 20 to 50 feet from the gourd racks/houses, but have some even farther out. The garden stakes do deteriorate after a while and may bend during strong winds. I sometimes have to "re-shape" them. I have used longer poles with a decoy on top and these work well, too.

Here are two photos showing one area where the decoy poles are on the perimeter of the south side of my martin colony. The photos are not that good, but may give you some ideas.

I hope you have a great martin season!

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PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
Steve Kroenke
Posts: 4342
Joined: Fri Nov 28, 2003 6:49 pm
Location: Louisiana/Logansport

Here is a close-up photo showing one of my martin decoys attached to the top of a garden stake. I drill about a 3/8 inch hole in the bottom of the martin decoy and may have to ream it out some. Then tightly push the garden stake up into the decoy. This holds the decoy on the stake and so far no hawk has been able to pull one off.

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PMCA Member
300+ pairs of martins each season
Stingray
Posts: 338
Joined: Wed May 11, 2005 9:45 pm
Location: Plantation/Florida

Steve,
That is a really good enjoyable read. Very well written.
Thank you for sharing!!

:)
Have a great season!
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