Spring Is Harsh

Story and illustration by Doug Pifer

One warm evening in early May I was watching several purple martins as they circled and landed on our four-tiered aluminum martin house. Seconds later, a big Cooper’s hawk charged by, barely missing a martin perched on the porch of its nest compartment. The martin flew off and the hawk continued into the far woods without missing a wingbeat.

A few days later I was haying the animals and looked up to see a big pair of wildly flailing wings on the far side of the martin house. The Cooper’s hawk was clinging to the house while martins fled the scene. Seconds later the hawk flew off, talons empty. I couldn’t see what happened. I imagined the hawk had just grabbed one of the martins as it retreated into its nest compartment and then tried, without success, to pull it out.

For the past eight years we’ve had a resident martin colony return to nest in the martin house and gourds. During that same span of years, Cooper’s hawks have nested and raised their young in our neighbors’ woods. Our martins have experienced numerous hawk attacks. Last year I saw a hawk snag a female martin off the top of the house and fly off with her in its talons.

Purple martins and Cooper’s hawks have coexisted as natural enemies for millennia. Cooper’s hawks are bold and aggressive, and use a strategy of speed, ambush, and surprise to capture their winged prey. Fast as they are, they can’t outfly a healthy purple martin in the open sky.

Struggles for survival remind us that spring, the season of new life and new growth, also brings lightning, thunder, pillage, and plunder. I encountered spring’s harshness this morning when I nearly stepped on the delicate, fractured shell of a speckled egg. Traces of fresh yolk and a visible puncture told me this egg had been stolen from the nest, possibly by a gray squirrel or a blue jay.

Our dead Kentucky coffee tree was selected as a nest site by a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers. Male and female woodpecker chiseled and drilled a deep cavity with a round entrance hole near the top of the dead trunk. After the woodpeckers finished their work, a pair of European starlings commandeered the nest hole and evicted the woodpeckers. The starlings are currently feeding a second brood of youngsters there. A woodpecker sometimes returns to peer inside but is quickly shooed away by the protective starlings.

A black rat snake has also claimed this dead tree as its headquarters. Last month, our dog discovered a newly shed snakeskin among the fallen shards of bark at the base of the trunk. As the young starlings grow bigger and ready to fledge, the flickering tongue of the snake will pick up their scent. I thought the snake would climb up the tree and into the nest hole to swallow the baby birds, which it did last year. But yesterday, the cries of newly fledged starlings in the adjacent tulip tree proved me wrong. The nestlings survived this time.

A delicate dance between predator and prey keeps the prey strong and the predator on top of its game. Such drama is the centerpiece of nature.Illustration by Doug Pifer courtesy Pennsylvania Game Commission.