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Observations of wintering ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) feeding on prairie dogs (Cynomys ludovicianus) in the Texas Panhandle.

Ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) winter in Texas from the Southern High Plains southwest into the Big Bend region and adjacent northern Mexico (Schmutz & Fyfe 1987; Palmer 1988; Johnsgard 1990; Olendorff 1993). They commonly occur in areas of cultivation but small groups are often observed in association with remnant prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) towns in patches of over-grazed native short-grass prairie. They perch on shrubs or on the ground either in or near the perimeter of towns. Hawks perched on the ground are largely ignored by the prairie dogs (Palmer 1988). While the importance of prairie dogs in this hawk's diet appears apparent, there have been few accounts describing the manner in which prairie dogs are captured and consumed by ferruginous hawks (Olendorff 1993). This report describes the foraging and feeding behavior of ferruginous hawks on prairie dogs in the Texas Panhandle.

On the morning of 9 January 1995, four ferruginous hawks and an adult bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were observed at a 450-acre area of native short-grass prairie habitat east of Amarillo, Texas, which supports a large prairie dog town. The hawks were perched on the ground and on utility structures in and adjacent to the prairie dog town. The eagle was soaring overhead. At approximately 1100 hr. one of the ground perched hawks captured a prairie dog, the hawk hopping on the ground and flapping its wings as it struggled with its prey. Its struggle immediately drew the attention of the other three hawks and within a few minutes nine more ferruginous hawks and one rough-legged hawk (Buteo lagopus) had surrounded the first hawk in a close group on the ground. Both adult and immature ferruginous hawks were among the group (most were immature). The new arrivals flew to the capture site very fast and just a few meters above the ground. They showed little hesitation in joining the group and began bumping and nudging one another in a form of "feeding frenzy" not previously reported for this species. Several hawks attempted to steal the prey during the frenzy. This was followed by considerable hopping, flapping, and fighting as several different individuals stole the prairie dog, mantled it, and fed upon it. The adult eagle flew over the area twice but did not join the group. Within 10 minutes, presumably after the prey had been consumed, the group dispersed and disappeared into the short-grass prairie landscape.

Later that morning, at approximately 1200 hr, a similar feeding frenzy took place in the same area. On this occasion, 11 ferruginous hawks (again mostly immature) assembled and fought over the prey. This time the adult eagle swooped down into the group and stole the prey, remaining in the group to eat the prey. Although a few hawks remained within the vicinity for a short time, most of them dispersed immediately after the eagle took the prey.

On 10 January 1995, at 1640 hr, a third feeding frenzy was observed. Eleven ferruginous hawks, most immature, again gathered around a single ferruginous hawk that had just captured a prairie dog, and several birds fought over the prey. Here, too, the group disbanded within 10 minutes after the prey had been caught and then exchanged among four or five hawks. No other species were observed taking part in the feeding activities.

Chesser (1979) reported a colony of wintering ferruginous hawks in New Mexico that was attracted by the shooting of prairie dogs. The group appeared regularly when shooting began and followed the vehicle used by the hunters, apparently associating gunfire with easily obtainable prey. A similar occurrence was observed on 8 January 1995, when a .22 caliber rifle was used to shoot prairie dogs for use as bait to trap ferruginous hawks west of Amarillo, Texas. After only a few shots were fired, a group of six ferruginous hawks had circled and perched on the ground nearby. When a 20 gauge shotgun was fired, one hawk immediately flew over the target mound. Harmata (1981) and Gilmer et al. (1985) listed shooting as a common cause of death for ferruginous hawks. Their apparent attraction to locations where prairie dogs are being hunted may be one reason that these birds are often shot.


We thank the U.S. Department of Energy, Mason and Hanger--Silas-Mason Co., Inc., and Battelle Pantex for partial support of this project under Contract FPR000049. We also thank J. C. Cepeda and Laurel Grove for reviewing this manuscript.

Literature Cited

Chesser, R. K. 1979. Opportunistic feeding on man-killed prey by ferruginous hawks. Wilson Bull. 91:330-331.

Gilmer, D. S., D. L. Evans, P. M. Konrad & R. E. Stewart. 1985. Recoveries of ferruginous hawks banded in south-central North Dakota. J. Field Ornithol. 56:184-187.

Harmata, A. R. 1981. Recoveries of ferruginous hawks banded in Colorado. North Am. Bird Bander 6:144-147.

Johnsgard, P. A. 1990. Hawks, eagles, and falcons of North America. Smithsonian Instit. Press, Washington, D.C. 403 pp.

Olendorff, R. R. 1993. Status, biology, and management of ferruginous hawks: a review. Raptor Res. Tech. Asst. Cen., Spec. Rep. U.S. Dep. Interior, Bur. Land Manage., Boise, Id. 84 pp.

Palmer, R. S. 1988. Handbook of North American birds, Volume 5, Diurnal raptors (Part 2). Smithsonian Instit. Press, Washington, D.C. 465 pp.

Schmutz, J. K. & R. W. Fyfe. 1987. Migration and mortality of Alberta ferruginous hawks. Condor 89:169-174.

P. S. Allison, *A. W. Leary and *M. J. Bechard

Battelle Pantex, P. O. Box 30020, Amarillo, TX 79177 and *Department of Biology, Boise State University, Boise, Idaho 83725
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:GENERAL NOTES
Author:Allison, P.S.; Leary, A.W.; Bechard, M.J.
Publication:The Texas Journal of Science
Geographic Code:1U7TX
Date:Aug 1, 1995
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