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Mystery Murder: Who done it? Adult Red Shouldered Hawk preyed upon in nest by . . . (1 Viewer)

Mystery Train

New member
United States
Newbie here, so this might instead belong in the Birds of Prey forum section...

I'm a life-long bird lover, but not an expert by any stretch. I was visiting my parents in Jackson, TN (West Tennessee) and went for a walk through a local nature park with my mom in the afternoon. The park has elevated boardwalks through swampland and groves of bald cypress trees. We spotted a nest about 70-80 feet up in the top of a tall cypress, and immediately saw a Red-Shouldered Hawk land in the nest but was out of sight while in the nest. It flew off after a few moments. As we walked around the boardwalk that looped around the nest tree, I noticed through my binoculars many feathers in the nest, and assumed there were fledglings that we couldn't see over the rim of the nest. Along the walk, we came across a clump of downy feathers with one large primary feather in it. We began to wonder if maybe something had gotten ahold of a fledgling. Eventually, we came around to the base of the tree, and after noticing a few more feathers now floating down from the nest, we were shocked to see the full, severed left wing of an adult RSH at the base of the tree on the ground o_O. We were still trying to process what we were seeing and piecing together what must have happened when we also noticed the decapitated head of the hawk lying on the other side of the tree :sick:. As a big fan of all Birds of Prey, and Red-Shoulders in particular, I was a bit shaken. I'd never seen anything like this. The naturalist in me wishes now I had taken photos and hung around to try to find more clues and observe if the other hawk returned and see his/her behavior to try to get answers as to what happened and determine who the culprit was. I travelled back to California today so I won't be able to go back and make more observations, and my parents probably won't be able to go regularly, but my mother did say she would return later to see if the nest has more activity or if the death of the (assumed) mother hawk effectively ended it.

My first thought was Great Horned Owl. Given the height of the tree, I cannot imagine any mammal large enough to kill a hawk being able to go that high up to do so. A raccoon might be able to get up there, but with plentiful (and far easier) food sources as there are for raccoons, no way can I believe one would choose to attack a hawk in its own nest, much less do so successfully. Snakes, which do abound in that habitat, would not have been able to dismember their prey, so they're out. It had to be another BoP, right? But which kind? I tried to look online for solid information about birds of prey eating other birds of prey and found some anecdotes, but nothing that satisfied my scientific curiosity. I have so many questions!

1. I am assuming that the bird we saw fly to and from the nest was the mate of the deceased hawk. I also assumed that the victim was probably the female who was attacked while incubating eggs, and was killed right there in the nest, likely at night by an owl. However, is it possible that the deceased hawk was actually not the mate, but was another RSH preyed upon and brought to the nest to be eaten by one of the nesting pair? I've never imagined that hawks would prey on their own species, and have never heard of such a thing. Anyone?

2. It seems that there are lots of stories on line of GHO's attacking hawks at night in their nests. This seems the obvious prime suspect, but there are a couple of reasons to doubt it. We saw this at about 4 in the afternoon. There was red blood and bloody tissue still evident at the base of the skull. There were lots of feathers in the nest, and some floating down in the breeze, but not a lot on the ground around the tree yet. Seemed to me like the kill had happened very recently. If it had happened in the night or early morning, I would have thought the blood would have dried black by then, but I'm no forensic detective. If it was a daytime kill, could it have been a Red-Tail? A Bald Eagle? I've never seen a Bald Eagle there, but I have heard others say they've seen them in that part of the state. I'm not as familiar with the predators of that area of the country... is there another suspect?

3. That swamp is known for having resident RSH and Barred Owls. Would a Barred Owl do something so bold and fierce? I don't think so, because they seem much less ornery than Great Horned Owls, but I could be wrong??

Calling all birding Sherlocks! I'd love to hear any theories and interesting stories or first-hand observations of raptor-on-raptor predation. But what I would also really appreciate is any scientific research on the subject. I couldn't find much in one quick google search. I'll probably go down that rabbit hole myself, but if anyone on here is more knowledgeable on the subject, please share!
So I went down a YouTube rabbit hole last night and found all sorts of nest cam videos showing owls preying on very large birds, herons, hawks, ospreys, and falcons in their nests at night, even striking an eagle or two, though not actually hanging around to fight them. I was surprised to see a Barred Owl going after a GHO in its nest too. There were also plenty of videos of hawks going after owls in nests so I guess just about anything is possible. I had no idea just how at-risk raptors are when sitting on their eggs/hatchlings. I guess it makes sense because they're basically highly visible, defenseless, and the other predator gets an easy target and can remove competition at the same time, so the risk reward for an attack is far better than I would have thought. Anyone else with stories like this?
Are there any members of the weasel family in that area? Climbing trees is what they do, in many cases, and a big-enough one could probably do a number on a sitting RSH...I, too, have been learning about how vulnerable raptors can be when on the ground on prey, especially from larger raptors, like eagles, and the larger owls are real snatch and grab artists on chicks in the nest. But, this kind of dismemberment doesn't sound like a bird, since the raptors/owls tend to eat everything, right down to the legs and feet. Feral cat, Lynx, Marten... not a pretty sight.
Maybe the animal/bird which killed or badly wounded it on the nest wasn't the same one which dismembered it at the base of the tree?
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