WARNING: Feathery gore ahead...
It was an uneventful winter afternoon on Sunday, February 24th.
As snowflakes softly twirled to the ground, I strolled towards the SURC, and, as always, kept my eyes and ears open for avian action.
When I neared the building, an odd noise caught my ears. It was a thin, high, "siii!" whistle. At first, I thought it was a Cedar Waxwing, but then I saw a robin-like bird out of the corner of my eye.
It was a female Varied Thrush, and she was emitting a piercing alarm call.*
Natural History Moment
* American Robins, Varied Thrushes' more familiar relative, give a similar alarm call, but it sounds a little different. Robins give a slightly lower, longer whistle that swells in the middle and tapers off at the end: "seeEEeeeh!" This special vocalization has been termed a "hawk whistle" since the birds make it when a hawk or other raptor is in the vicinity. It has been hypothesized that the high-pitched nature of the sound makes it more difficult for the predator to locate the caller.
If you ever hear this call, look around! You will probably see a bird of prey nearby.
Follow this link to listen to the American Robin's hawk whistle:
This call caught my attention, and I immediately searched for the cause of the songbird's anxiety. Suddenly, I saw some grayish feathers scattered on the immaculately white snow. The feathers were tipped with orange, which reminded me of the waxy-tipped plumage of the aptly-named Cedar Waxwing. After looking a little closer, however, I realized that they were Varied Thrush feathers!
A tragic thought came to me: what if the captured thrush (which appeared to be a male) was the mate of the calling female Varied Thrush? If so, this would be a compelling example of avian emotion.
It was a sad thing to ponder, but the wild beauty of the predatory raptor was unmatched. As the accipiter plucked the feathers of its sorry victim, I could only marvel at the grandeur of this incredible animal.