Songbirds are cool, but...

The view from the hawk blind slit...facing North to see the oncoming Southward-bound raptors
"Sharpie coming in...don't move...." Hidden from within the hawk blind cube, Jay yanks a green string, his hawk-like eyes peering out the small slit in the blind, intensely focused on the sharp-shinned hawk that had appeared from nowhere.  With the pull of the string, a white pigeon (with the unfortunate job title of "lure bird") is flung into the air.  The fluttering of its wings immediately catch the eye of the hawk.  

The lure bird...a white pigeon tied to a string, allowing the hawk trapper to "toss" it into the air to attract hawks.
But a sharpie (as birders call them) will only rarely go after a bird as large as the pigeon; and Jay, knowing this (having pulled the pigeon just to initially get the sharpie's attention), pulls a smaller string, sending a small English sparrow into the air flapping.  The focus of the sharpie instantly shifts; in less than a second it descended on the sparrow.   

The fear of the sparrow must be terrific at this moment, but lucky for him, we are not out for entertainment.  Surrounding the little sparrow is an array of mist-nets (similar to the ones used for the songbird banding operation).  The incoming sharpie plowed into the mist-net, which collapsed instantly (as intended) over him.  Nearly simultaneously, another sharp-shin jetted in from a different direction, and, with nothing learned by observing the fate of its fellow species, crashed into another net.  Two birds with one stone.

The door of the banding shack exploded open as Jay and Rob bolted towards the entangled birds; waiting too long can result in a bird escaping (and thus loss of data, which biologists passionately HATE).  

Jay and Rob removing two sharp-shinned hawks from the collapsible mist-nets.
Rob with diligent hands untangling the tangled.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wholly enthralled by the hawk trapping operation: the hawks flying high overhead, Jay methodically tossing the lure birds, the shift of focus as the hawks see the lure bird flapping (which can be from a phenomenally long distance away), the silent, rapid approach of the hawk, the clink of the collapsing mist-net, the burst out of the blind shack of seemingly crazed biologists to untangle the birds for measurement and banding.  

English sparrow lure bird, tied to a string (hard to see)
Providing shelter and water for the lure bird...see, we're not completely heartless biologists
A banded juvenile sharp-shin
Sharp-shin wondering what in the world is going on
Processing the Sharp-shin (Rob putting the band on)
Other photos of the day:
The lure bird is actually surrounded by two different sets of traps: the collapsible mist-nets and a clam-shell net trap (if the raptor actually lands on the lure bird; injuries and deaths of the lure bird are surprisingly rare)

Jay removing a sharp-shinned hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk, juvenile male
Jay in his element.
American kestrel
American kestrel
American kestrel

But by far, the best part is holding the raptors.  For never having held a raptor before, this is how it went: "oh, ok, cool...I'll just hold on to this bird and get my photo taken with it...that's pretty sweet" to [grabbing the bird], "HOLY COW THIS IS AMAZING!" 

Me with juvenile, male Sharp-shinned hawk
With juvenile Red-tailed hawk
With juvenile Swainson's hawk (Jay's FIRST ever!)
Jay has been hawk trapping for years, and is always on the prowl for catching a new bird.  Two years ago, he caught a gyrfalcon, an extremely rare and privileged occurrence.  This year, he caught his first Swainson's hawk, a common species that does not get caught often (presumably because it is thought that Swainson's don't eat at all during their migration down to South America; think about that for a second).

A happy Jay with his first Swainson's hawk.

"Hey Mom!"  (Red-tailed hawk, juvenile)

Swainson's hawk during measurement and banding process


Release of the Swainson's
Parting shot of the hawk blind overlooking the system of traps.

And here's a Lincoln's sparrow captured in the songbird huh?

Lincoln's Sparrow--actually quite a rare catch

ANSWER'S to the last capture quiz:

1  Townsend’s warbler
2  Red-breasted nuthatch
3  Spotted towhee (juvenile)
4  Black-capped chickadee
5  Semipalmated sandpiper

WINNER: Glenn DeVoe!  Two in a row for Mr. DeVoe...good job pa!


  1. Excellent post. You describe the process quite well. Did any of the pictures of me with the Swainson's come out? I would like a copy of the best one if they did. Thanks. I probably won't see you before your departure. Have a fantastic time way down under!

  2. Jesse - that post is so cool!!! Great job documenting the process. Our latest cool bird encounter was seeing two great horned owls as we floated the upper Teton River on Saturday.

  3. So great to get your snippets of these research projects. Blog on!

  4. sweet post :)
    hey, could I get that pic of me holding the townsend's that's at the top?
    oh, and actually, the LISP pic would be cool too :)
    would you mind if I shared your blog on the IBO fan page? you can say no (I would ;)

  5. Wow, a hawk in the hand looks much more imposing than on the wing! Surprised not to see any bloody fingers. Glad to see someone has found a good use for English sparrows (need more?). Marvelous documentary-quality pics and delightful writing, as always.

  6. Awesome blog Jesse! I look forward to following each update. I hope to visit you guys up on the hill soon. Please say hello to all the gang at the IBO for me.

    - Robert


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