Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
For the past 12 summers, I’ve been observing the daily activities at a red-tailed hawk nest located near the south shore of Clear Lake. This year, the hawks successfully raised two young. Out of the nest and on the wing, the fledglings are currently learning to hunt for themselves. Their first inexperienced and clumsy attempts at catching meadow voles and garter snakes are taking place where a nearby alfalfa plot borders a bean field. A scattering of giant round hay bales provide convenient perches for hunting, loafing and feeding.
I’ve been spending time sitting inside a fake hay bale; photographing the young hawks as they go about their business. I was shooting new photos of the red-tails one hot afternoon when a hen turkey suddenly materialized at the edge of the beans. The hen immediately approached the bale where one youngster was perched. The turkey soon began to posture aggressively, using the exact same body language you’d expect to see just before a dominate spring hen decides to pound your turkey decoy into the sod.
The young raptor watched with curiosity as the hen continued her stiff legged approach. Suddenly, the turkey catapulted into the air and straight for the perched hawk. Reaching the top of the bale the hen delivered a crushing blow, knocking the surprised hawk to the ground. Flying back down, the turkey quickly reengaged; violently lashing out with feet and wings. The scene had become an upside down world of reversed roles as prey attacked predator. Flattened and motionless, the stunned red-tail soon resembled a rag doll. I thought the hen might actually kill the hawk — if it wasn’t dead already.
Suddenly, the young red-tail appeared to regain its senses. Employing its powerful hooked beak and needle-sharp talons, the raptor began an all out, defensive bid for survival. With legs whirring like rototillers, the hawk executed a rapid fire series of strikes and jabs. The tactic inflicted enough pain and surprise that the turkey backed off. The ruffled hawk quickly regained its perch atop the bale and then watched as the turkey reluctantly retreated down the bean rows.
Although I never actually saw or heard them, I’m certain that the turkey had a brood of poults hidden beneath the dense canopy of the beans. When the hawk glided over the hay field, the hen and her young had probably crouched low and tried to hide. But when the hawk landed on the nearby bale, the hen may have thought her young had been discovered and that time had come defensive action. I suspect that after both hawk and human photographer had left the scene, the turkey returned to collect her cowering brood. Regardless of what may have prompted the attack, this certainly ranks as one of the most unusual wildlife encounters I’ve been able to observe and document.
Final Thought: As is the case with most bird species, red-tailed hawks are creatures of opportunity. Given the chance, they would as gladly capture and eat a tender, half grown turkey poult as they would a rabbit, squirrel, or snake. But when it comes to birds-of-prey, first encounters have a lasting lifetime effect. I’m guessin’ that if this particular hawk survives to adulthood, it will think twice before attempting to add a turkey drumstick to any future menus.