Friends of Blue Sky

Avian predators that stalk Blue Sky Canyon

By Claude G. Edwards, BSER Docent Instructor and SD Birding Expert

Predators are those creatures that prey upon, or hunt, other species for sustenance. They are an integral part of a whole and vital ecosystem. Various species of predators occur within the bounds and vicinity of the Blue Sky Ecological Reserve and each has its own important role to play and impact to make. Some are more familiar to us than others, some are larger than others, some are more numerous, some have more charisma, and some are down right cute.

We can learn a lot by focusing on one category or group of predators, avian or feathered predators, birds whose lives are even more intriguing than we may have thought. Most of us are familiar with the larger and more conspicuous of our feathered hunters, namely hawks. They are indeed charismatic but in total number of individuals, they are not very abundant. One species we all get to know is the Cooper’s hawk, medium-sized as hawks go but among the larger of our avian residents. Cooper’s hawks utilize our woodland habitat for hunting, roosting, and nesting, preying upon smaller birds that are captured with speed and stealth, enabling them to hunt by gracefully weaving through tree branches without harm.

Other hawk species we have in our midst are red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), another woodland denizen, red-tailed hawk, which circles over rugged slopes and ridges in our area, and preferring to perch in the open on poles, tree-tops, and boulders. These raptors hunt for birds, but also snakes and small mammals, such as rabbits and ground squirrels.

The night patrol is taken over by a capable group of ferocious feathered hunters, equipped with binocular vision and super-sensitive hearing, silent flight and piecing talons. These of course are owls, birds we know fairly well. Their prey varies depending on their size, insects for western screech-owl, insects, reptiles and small mammals for barn owl, and small to medium sized reptiles and mammals for the great horned owl.

Speaking of reptiles, the wily coyote may have a hard time getting his way with the roadrunner, but the latter has a fondness for lizards and small snakes. They can sprint as fast as a man can run, and this is good when chasing speedy lizards.

There are other avian predators that are just as important in their own way as hawks. Take for example the black phoebe. You might not consider this amiable and dapper-looking songbird as a voracious hunter until you think of its family, the Tyrant Flycatchers. The term boldly states its voracity and food preference. Everyone knows that phoebes capture and consume insects, which is a good thing. They do so with an audible ‘snap’ of their bills. Phoebes flicks their tails when they perch, whereas ash-throated flycatcher tends to raise its crest in an expressive manner.

There are other avian insectivores that hunt within Blue Sky Canyon, such as orange-crowned warbler, Hutton’s vireo, and black-chinned hummingbird. Birds such as these are smaller in size than most flycatchers and they also capture smaller insect prey. Whereas flycatchers find and chase insects on the wing, warblers, vireos, and hummingbirds tend to find their food on leaves, twigs, bark, and even spider webs. Too bad they don’t catch more of them for our benefit.

Woodpeckers are another group of birds that we see at Blue Sky that may not come to mind at first thought as a predator. They are known for their agility on tree trunks and limbs, and for their propensity to peck and poke along their way. But when you think a little more about them, you realize they do this to find and eat insects boring and chewing their way through the trees. They are indeed predators, and not vegetarians. With this information, watching birds takes on a whole new perspective.