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Banding hawks in Grand Forks draws curious watchers

It took a lot of patience and work to get the Cooper's hawk to attack the owl that threatened her nest in a Grand Forks neighborhood, but she finally stooped down on her target.

A group of curious residents gather around raptor export Tim Driscoll inspects a Cooper's hawk July 4 in Grand Forks. (April Baumgarten / Grand Forks Herald)

It took a lot of patience and work to get the Cooper's hawk to attack the owl that threatened her nest in a Grand Forks neighborhood, but she finally stooped down on her target.

The owl was fake, placed behind a net to ensnare the elusive bird. Raptor expert Tim Driscoll, along with 20 curious onlookers, waited more than an hour on for the hawk to fly down from her tree.

"This is the hardest I've worked on a bird all year," Driscoll said as he used a remote to play bird sounds.

But spending the afternoon on Independence Day was worth it for the crowd. Driscoll captured the unnamed hawk and her three chicks, who were hatched in a nest in Anne and Mitch Smith's backyard near Wilmar Park in south Grand Forks. It's the first time a Cooper's hawk has nested in one of their trees.

"She's been a wonderful tenant. She's been quiet, hasn't had any parties," Anne Smith said laughing. "I was just honored to have her choose my yard to nest in."


The chicks were all female-named Junice, after Anne Smith's mother; Inga after her grandmother; and Margaret after Mitch Smith's mother. Driscoll took several measurements, drew blood and banded each chick before safely returning them to the nest via a cherry picker.

Anne Smith said she likes these types of events. She was on hand to see Driscoll band four peregrine falcon chicks in mid-June that had hatched on the UND water tower.

Banding and taking measurements on Cooper's hawks, as well as other raptors, is a way to study birds in Grand Forks, but the events draw a crowd because watchers are fascinated by the information, behavior and beauty of hawks and falcons, Driscoll said.

"I was asking the kids, 'What was the best thing you did all day?' " he said, referring to curious children who stopped as he handled the chicks and mother. "Maybe one of those 8-year-olds will be the next great biologist. Maybe that will be the spark."

Studying Cooper's hawks

Cooper's hawks are not rare in the Grand Forks area, Driscoll said, though it wasn't always that way. Birders once were lucky to see the species, according to the Grand Cities Bird Club website.

Cooper's hawks stayed in rural areas until the late 1980s. But now they can be found in urban areas across the country, Driscoll said.

The development of the hawks moving into urban areas is one reason for the study, Driscoll said.


"People to this day say, 'Well, we don't have hawks in town,'" he said. "Well, we do."

He referred to merlin hawks and peregrine falcons, both species that used to stay out of urban areas. Now birders are spotting both species in Grand Forks. He once counted 20 merlin nests and 18 Cooper's nest in a year.

"That's just crazy that we can support that many birds in that much of an area," he said. "It's not a new species, but it's a species in a new habitat."

The first nest in Grand Forks was found in 1988 in Memorial Cemetery. Now the city averages 15 nests a year. Driscoll and his coworkers have made a point to band most nesting pairs in the area and have studied the hawks since 2004.

The studies include taking multiple measurements,-from talon lengths to wingspans-drawing blood to determine genealogy and determining the sex of the birds-females weigh more than males. Driscoll even uses a chart to record a hawk's eye color, which can help differentiate older birds from younger ones.

It's at this time when Driscoll educates the crowd on feather growth, habit and much more. As he weighs the birds, he gives specifics about the hawk he has captured.

This particular female was was hatched in 2006 and banded by Driscoll the following year behind Altru Health System, he said. He lost track of her in 2008 but caught up with her in 2009. Except for 2010, he's spotted her every year since, almost always in the same area near the Smiths' neighborhood.

"She has stopped growing new feathers," he said, pointing to her old ones. Growing feathers takes a lot of energy, he added, and she is now using that energy to feed her young.


Waiting and watching

The neighborhood is normally quiet, she said, though the capture of the hawk and her chicks attracted a lot of attention.

That may have been one of the reasons the mama hawk was reluctant to come down, Driscoll said. She saw the owl and heard the calls, but she also kept her eye on the small crowd, which made her think twice about flying down.

"We are giving her a lot," Driscoll said.

Cooper's hawks have shown a tolerance for noise, according to the Bird Club. When the Old Science Hall at UND's campus was torn down a few years ago, an active nest was less than 50 feet away. The hawks produced at least two young chicks a few weeks after the debris had been cleared from the site.

The crowd had to change positions several times, moving further down the street. The hawk continued to hop around in one tree, screeching at the fake owl.

Driscoll said there is no doubt the hawk knows who he is. She has stooped down at him a couple of times, once hitting him in the back of the head. The day before he captured the hawk on July 4 he was in the yard. He turned his back on the nest and she stooped toward him, flying over his head

"She came within a foot of hitting me," he said. "She flew right over my head and I could feel the wind as she went by."


The 20-ounce bird did not harm Driscoll, but being hit by a Cooper's hawk "takes your breath away."

But instead of flying at the net, she simply moved from tree to tree, watching the watchers and trying to scare the owl from her yard.

Just as the birdwatchers were about to give up, the bird flew into a tree she had nested in before, which is exactly what Driscoll wanted.

A few minutes later, she descended upon the owl, where she was trapped by the net. Working carefully but quickly, Driscoll was able to untangle the unharmed bird to a clapping crowd.

Driscoll said the hawk was healthy. She stayed calm during the demonstration, save for a few squawks as Driscoll allowed some in the crowd to hold and pet her. He also, within reason, passed around the chicks, which the crowd and children appeared to enjoy, he added.

Then Anne Smith got the honor of the day: releasing the mother hawk back into the wild. With a push into the air, the mother spread her wings and flew into the tree across the street.

She and her neighbors will be watching the Cooper's hawk and her chicks for a while.

"It'll be fun when the babies get out of the nest because they will be bopping around," she said.


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