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Life and Death in the Winter

Fish & Wildlife

Fri Feb 01 14:54:00 MST 2013

Falco rusticolus


By Bruce Auchly
FWP Region 4 Information Officer

Last week I witnessed an attempted murder.

The attacker was swift and cunning, but in the end the near-victim was quicker and survived.

No police call was required as the attacker was a gyrfalcon, the largest falcon and a rare winter visitor to Montana.

The escapee was a Hungarian partridge.

While life and death are always a daily part of nature, the starkness of winter seems to add urgency to the struggle.

The gray, stocky gyrfalcon had spooked a covey of Huns on a gravel road looking for weed seeds or gravel. The group rose as one and cut across the road in front of me. Except for a single bird that decided to fly straight away along the barbed wire fence.

Having apparently found its next meal, the gyrfalcon bore down on the lone Hun.

Then, when death seemed imminent, the Hun dove into a snowdrift at the base of a small bush. The gyrfalcon alit on the snow surface for a moment, looked around, and finally rose unsuccessful to sit on a nearby fence post.

Death and a meal would have to wait.

Every day, nature’s balancing act is on the menu. What makes winter different is the gathering of predators and prey, calling us to witness.

This time of year, prey species have a tendency to bunch up, seeking food and security. Food can be grass on a windblown hill side or a backyard bird feeder.

In both cases, security comes from numbers, lots of eyes watching for predators.

Animals gathered for feeding also represent an opportunity too good to pass up for many predators.

Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks will try to pick off unwary birds at the backyard bird feeder. It’s a constant battle, lots of little eyes watching for a pair of sharp talons attached to a body that needs to eat, too.

Some days the seed eaters win, some days the raptors are victors.

Just understand that all those feathered wings bring in predators; so please don’t get upset when a hawk swoops in to take a meal.

For larger animals, like deer, the predators are often mountain lions. That’s one reason why it’s illegal to feed big game animals. Deer certainly can be fun to watch from the warmth of one’s living room window. But feeding deer may be bring mountain lions into the backyard near the swing set. Not a wise move.

Even nature sometimes creates its own winter gathering of predators and prey.

When the temperature drops to near zero and stays there long enough to freeze the Missouri River in north central Montana, waterfowl that have not migrated congregate on the few bits of open water – directly downstream of dams.

Those few spots of open water in a frozen river also draw a multitude of bald eagles, trying to catch a duck. Sometimes the eagles hunt in pairs, sometimes they fly over the river alone. Occasionally an eagle is rewarded with a meal of duck tartare.

The balancing act never ends, just the times, dates and places change with the seasons.