Thursday, August 05, 2010

The sentinel

It started with a simple observation. When I checked the sheep herd one afternoon, I flushed a golden eagle from the top of the hill above them. A few days later it happened again, and then again. Not every day, but nearly every day. It happened in the morning, afternoon, and evening – whatever time of day I approached the herd. The guardian dogs became accustomed to the eagle, and didn’t erupt in alarm when the bird took flight. Lambing was long past, and the eagle did not seem to be a threat to the herd, but still it was there, perched nearby.

I moved from my sheep camp back to my house, and began driving out to check the herd every day, and soon began to look for the eagle as I searched out the herd. I drove along a ridge, coming up on the eagle from the backside, and by its presence would know that my herd was grazing down below.

I gradually began to notice that as the herd moved, the eagle flew along out in front, so it was always ahead of the sheep as the herd moved. I sat on the hillside one afternoon as the herd moved down a long draw in front of me, and watched the eagle fly back and forth, perched on one side of the draw, then flying further down the draw to perch on the opposite side, watching the herd as it moved. That’s when it dawned on me: The golden eagle was using the herd’s movement to aid its hunt for a meal. One of the guardian dogs uses a similar hunting technique.

The adult female Akbash Luv’s Girl often hunts jackrabbits. When the herd is on the move, Luv’s Girl walks along with the front line of the herd because as the herd moves, it flushes jackrabbits. The dog had learned from experience that moving with the front of the herd would result in the displacement of jackrabbits, and she often was able to run down and kill these rabbits after they flushed from their hiding places.

I’m not positive that I’m right about what the golden is doing, because I haven’t actually seen it take a jackrabbit from near the herd. But I’ll keep watching, hoping I get to witness a successful hunt, and that my presence isn’t too much of a disruption.

Watching a golden eagle live in such close association with the sheep herd has been an interesting experience for this shepherd. At another time of year, and perhaps under different circumstances or a different place, I might dread the presence of a golden eagle nearby because of the threat it could pose to my herd, and to my livelihood. But not this time, at this place, under these circumstances. Instead, our golden has become somewhat of a welcome presence, a rangeland sentinel.


Mark Churchill said...

Steve and Matt must not have seen this yet; otherwise, I'm sure they would have pointed out that observations like this (maybe even with golden eagles specifically) are what led to the "invention" (possibly the wrong word) of falconry.

Cat Urbigkit said...

Mark, I think what you're nicely saying is my observation was a "duh!" Fascinating behavior regardless. Hope all is well in Nebraska.

Mark Churchill said...

Didn't mean that at all! It is fascinating behavior, and behavior that I think most people would have missed. Not everyone, first of all, gets to see goldens. Of those who do, how many get repeated exposure to the same individual, amassing enough observation time for the pattern to reveal itself? And assuming (fairly, I think) that many of those who meet the above criteria are stockmen and -women (for who else is out there often enough and long enough to see such behavior?), how many are going to look past the real or perceived threat to their animals and really think about what they're seeing, eventually coming to a new interpretation of the eagle's behavior?

So not "duh!" at all. You're right up there with that anonymous, long-dead (thousands of years dead) Mongolian or Kazakh herder who became the first falconer; my (and Steve's and Matt's) ancestor-of-the-heart, if you will.

There is, as Sherlock Holmes noted, a world of difference between seeing and observing.

Steve Bodio said...

I agree completely with Masrk-- great observation, and fit as anyone knows with my idea of how falconry started.

Apologies for recent absence. We have been dealing among other things with the endless problems of living in an ancient house, and I have been extremely busy. The monsoons are upon us and the roof is leaking like a sieve, even as I simultaneously try to arrange a new short range bird for fall, figure how to get my longer range bird to HER new home, look at possibilities in featherweight guns, run a dog through the vet's, fix the toilet, and engage in endless negotiations trying to revive Querencia-the-book, all the while trying to stay fit and un-stressed. Interesting how many things you have to do in order to be able to do the next, I hope more enjoyable, things!

Though Mark -- you might tell your uncle that I am now bench-pressing 190 pounds.

Anonymous said...

Although I mentioned this before on a blog somewhere(?), I thought it would be interesting to some to retell it--I have an extensive bird feeding set-up which of course attracts a lot of bird hunting hawks(fine with me!). In escaping diving hawks, the birds often duck into some patches of brush I maintain for their benefit. My dogs(many; and of great variety) notice this immediately when it happens, and race into the brush after the escaping birds, and inadvertantly flush them out to the hawks(usually Coopers, but sometimes Sharp-Shinned). The hawks have become so accustomed to this that they will sit and wait in trees overlooking the brush piles, and let the dogs do their "work", and pick up an easy, distracted bird. So far, this relationship hasn't benefited the dogs very much, unless just the "fun" of it is reward enough for them. I'd like to report that my sighthounds have a more natural tendency to notice and work with the raptors than the other dogs, but alas, it is my Siberian Huskies that tend to react and participate the most enthusiastically!....L.B.

Anonymous said...

...And Steve--bench-pressing 190???? Dang! That sounds purty darn healthy to me! Keep it up and you'll be using ostriches for your "short-range" bird!....L.B.

Cat Urbigkit said...

When a hawk made a sage grouse come crashing to the ground in a willow patch in our sheep pasture, Rant the guard dog, who had been watching the chase, raced over, grabbed the stunned grouse, and enjoyed a meal. No sharing.

Barrus and Scriver said...

Once I watched a hunting bird using a storm front exactly as you describe the eagle using the sheep herd. Small mammals and birds were reacting to the coming wind and rain by rushing home, which meant they were exposed.

And those who plow and harrow fields are accustomed to the predator birds (gulls and hawks) who watch the front for flushing prey and the furrows behind for turned-up or mutilated edibles.

Once I watched a coyote stationed on a soft hillside riddled with ground squirrel holes, carefully watching as a badger worked his way through the burrows in case an escape "pipe" ran his way.

People do this, too. Watch hustlers at bus stations.

Prairie Mary