A red-shouldered hawk launches off a dead branch and makes a nose dive toward an awaiting mate. Some of these hawks will also dive at humans if they think their nest or young are in danger. Orlando Sentinel file photo

The nesting season is in full swing and we often get some pretty interesting reports of unusual wildlife behaviors that come with it.

Whether it be young mammals exploring new locations on their own, baby birds with no fear of humans, or territorial adults showing their displeasure of too-close humans, it seems like every other conversation I have is about some ‘odd’ behavior. This week, Tux Turkel of Yarmouth – formerly a longtime reporter with the Portland Press Herald – wrote to us about a red-shouldered hawk that has been attacking him during bike rides. This is a good place to start talking about extreme behaviors.

These attacks, usually by raptors, do come up from time to time. I recall when I was in school in Orono at the University of Maine, a great horned owl in the Bangor City Forest was a repeated offender for dive-bombing and whacking cross-country skiers. More recently, a barred owl at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester made the news for also attacking cross-country skiers. The fun thing to piece together here, comparing these owls to the recent hawk, is the timing of their nesting. Owls are some of our earliest nesting birds in Maine, with great horned owls on nests and incubating by January. Barred owls, who have smaller young that don’t take as long to develop, start nesting a little later. Red-shouldered hawks are months behind these owls, with some nesting in March but really picking up in April, then the first chicks aren’t hatching out until May and June.

Spot the pattern? The timing of these attacking birds syncs up with when they are most protective of their nests, or young within. A few other classic examples in Maine come from the woods and the beach: American goshawks (formerly known as northern goshawk) are fiercely territorial and are the most likely to seriously injure someone getting too close to their nests. While males are off foraging for food that they’ll bring back to the nest, females stay to protect the chicks. Those females are over 20% larger than the males (25 inches long) and up to 90% heavier (40 ounces), making them a formidable predator, especially when 100% of it is flying toward your head.

On the other end of the spectrum, by both size and habitat, the least tern may be familiar to many summertime beach goers. These small cousins of our more common gulls are found nesting on sandy beaches, often in association with endangered piping plovers. Least terns live up to their name, being the smallest species of tern, but they come with a big attitude like the aforementioned raptors. Get too close to a tern colony and they’ll start diving at you, but instead of striking you with their talons, they are more likely to defecate in your general direction … and they have surprisingly good aim.

A killdeer will fake an injury to take a potential predator’s attention away from its target. Nick Lund photo

While these are the most obvious behaviors, there are lots of other signals that birds give us when we are too close to their nest or young, so be on the lookout. One of my favorites is a “distraction display” where a bird will feign an injury and lure you away from its nest or young. In this case, the adult is perceiving you as a predator and tries to make itself look like an easy meal. Killdeer, a species of shorebird (technically a plover) that nests away from the beach on patches of gravel and especially around parking lots and ball fields, are perhaps the most famous for this. There are even a bunch of songbirds, especially warblers, that will flop around and pretend to be injured in order to distract you.

The takeaway from all of these behaviors is that it is a strong signal from that adult that they feel like their nest or young are at risk, so they are going to risk fighting or sacrificing themselves to protect their young. In most cases, those birds may have just a couple of weeks or days before the young are going to leave the area, so if you can avoid that spot for a short time, you can help increase the success of that nest and also keep from getting some goshawk scars.

Have you got a nature question of your own? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 7 to 9 am, at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

Join the Conversation

Please sign into your Press Herald account to participate in conversations below. If you do not have an account, you can register or subscribe. Questions? Please see our FAQs.