Ever found a pile of bird's feathers below a shrub, next to your shed, or in some other concealed location in your backyard? Wondered how they got there? Here's a little story which might explain why...
Eating breakfast outside on the verandah this morning was a great way to start the day, and a hive of bird activity made a delightful scene in front of us. New Holland Honeyeater alarms sounded raucously from some bushes at the edge of our block, which drew my attention and had me sneaking over to investigate. There were about four honeyeaters persistently chattering, and as I reached the fence, two magpies dived down and clapped their beaks in aggression. I thought maybe a cat was sitting behind one of the shrubs. Just as I was about to climb over the fence to get closer, I saw a pair of piercing yellow eyes looking back at me. I froze. The eyes belonged to a Collared Sparrowhawk (Accipiter cirrocephalus).
Known as 'Killingilee' in the Noongar Aboriginal language, this small but powerful bird of prey (raptor) is a very swift hunter. The individual in front of me, which I suspected by its larger size to be a female, had killed a Bronzewing Pigeon (Phaps chalcoptera)! It remained perched on its kill for long enough to allow me to grab my camera, and return to take a picture of it. I waited several minutes and was very pleased when it resumed normal behaviour, allowing me to record this at close range. The sparrowhawk plucked many of the pigeon's breast feathers off before starting to eat its kill by tearing small chunks from its body. I watched in amazement, pinching myself that although partly obscured by shrubbery, the bird was still easily visible enough to capture on film.
|Sparrowhawks (and goshawks) like to find a concealed spot to kill and pluck their prey.|
|Small pieces of meat are visible on this Sparrowhawk's beak as she feeds quickly.|
It fed for several more minutes, plucking out some of the pigeon's larger flight and tail feathers, then a sudden movement nearby caused it to leap into the air and fly away quickly, carry its meal with it. What amazing luck to see such an unusual event happen right in front of me!
I inspected the pile of Bronzewing feathers, and noticed (as I have done with the many raptor kills I've seen before) that the pile consisted of mostly smaller body feathers and a few larger ones from the wings and tail. It was a good opportunity to observe the differences between a raptor kill and that of a mammal like a Fox or Cat.
- To expose the meat and help them feed easily, raptors take care to pluck most of the finer feathers, which Foxes and Cats may not bother doing.
- Having a hooked bill, raptors are able to pluck feathers neatly, leaving them intact. Foxes and Cats usually chew feathers in half, so you will find the longer ones snapped or sheared at the edges.
- Raptors often feed by standing in the one spot, and unless the wind blows them around, features remain in a neat pile. Mammal predators often drag or wrench their food around in many directions, making a bigger mess.
- Small pieces of meat and internal organs (such as the crop and stomach in the above Bronzewing) are sometimes left behind by raptors, as a product of their more delicate feeding method.
Next time you find a pile of feathers, take careful note of where they are and what they look like - you might even be able to reassemble an interesting story like mine!