Snake Versus Hawk

An epic role reversal, straight from the field notes of a teacher naturalist.

September 20, 2013

Red-tailed Hawk

Extraordinary experiences often create vivid memories we carry throughout our lives, stories that are recalled with a smile and air of excitement while trading tales among friends. These experiences can be uncommon or unexpected, but the best are both. Last summer I was fortunate to add one of these extraordinary experiences to my life in one of my favorite settings, the pinelands of New Jersey.

On July 30, 2012, at 11:54 a.m., while driving down a sandy access road in the pinelands with my father, Paul Kaczmarczik, and naturalist friend John Robinson, we spotted what appeared to be a road-killed bird a few hundred yards up ahead. The sight seemed strange considering how infrequently vehicles used this road. Pulling up next to the ball of feathers, we hopped out of the car hoping to identify what species of raptor met such an unfortunate fate. The road, in a darkly ironic way, I later found to be named Bloody Ridge Road.

As soon as we approached, a slender figure started protruding from the feathers. This bird was not incapacitated by a car—instead, it had been wrestled to the ground by a northern pine snake (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus)! The rusted red tail feathers that were compressed within a coil of the pine snake gave the bird away as a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

Snake versus hawk

The pine snake was around five feet in length, rather typical for an adult. The colors of the hawk’s plumage indicated that it was enjoying its second year of life, or at least enjoying it prior to encountering the northern pine snake!

While snakes are a common food source for red-tailed hawks, it is rather unusual to observe a reversal of this predator-prey relationship. Despite snakes’ ability to engulf prey much larger than their own heads, even the largest of pine snakes would find it difficult to consume a red-tailed hawk.

As the pine snake slid away from the static hawk, it became obvious that its feat was an act of self-defense. About 8 inches below the head of the snake there was an inch-long gash on its belly, clearly caused by one of the hawk’s razor-sharp talons. Being in only its second year of life, the inexperienced hawk must have misjudged the speed and power of an adult pine snake. Either due to the hawk’s carelessly misplaced foot­­—or pure luck—the pine snake had managed to constrict the hawk. By the time we arrived, the talons were safely immobilized within the coils of the pine snake.Snake injury

After posing for a few pictures, the pine snake made its way across the road, slipping back into the brush. We then turned our attention to what appeared to be the dispatched hawk. After a slight nudge with my boot, the hawk’s head appeared from the tousled feathers, its eyes open and mouth agape as it gasped for air.

To our amazement, the hawk was still very much alive, though apparently worse for wear. While the hawk recuperated in the shade for 10 to 15 minutes, we stood in complete awe of what had just transpired. Had we arrived several minutes earlier, the hawk surely would have avoided attacking the snake; several minutes later we would have likely come across a dead hawk. At this point, though, the hawk was not quite out of the woods.

Constrictors such as pine snakes carry immense power in their slender bodies. The hawk could have easily suffered broken bones under the pressure of the pine snake’s coils. As we re-approached the now-rested though still heavily breathing hawk, it took to the wing and shot like an arrow onto a nearby tree branch. Apparently, the hawk had made it through the encounter relatively unscathed, if not a little wiser.

To bear witness to such a dramatic event in nature is an experience I will never forget. Every time I venture into the woods, or pinelands, or even a local park, nature never fails to surprise me with some new discovery. On rare occasions, and with enough patience, once-in-a-lifetime events unfold before my eyes, reminding me of how much I haven’t seen and just how many experiences are left to be had. All it takes is a walk through the woods.

Several hours after our encounter with the snake and hawk, we were driving back down the same road on our way home. Sure enough, a red-tailed hawk appeared from the trees and buzzed the top of our car before returning to its perch.

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