This article offers some loft management practices that work for the author and might be of benefit to the reader.
It is important to understand the feeding habits of the Cooper Hawk. In the non-nesting season, they are only feeding themselves and normally hunt from sun-up for a couple of hours and then again in the evening for the last few hours of the day. If they score during the morning hours, they seem to spend the rest of the day honing their hunting skills by harassing their prey.
Even though they might not be in a killing mood, they can wreak havoc on your birds by scaring your birds off of the loft and into windows, trees, power-lines, etc.
During the nesting season, they will hunt throughout the day. At this time, they prefer smaller prey that they can carry intact back to the nest. Since their nesting coincides with other wild birds in the area, they seem to concentrate on newly hatched/fledged wild birds. This is not to say that they will totally avoid pigeons but they are constantly hunting and don’t seem to have time to sit in a tree and watch your loft.
Young fledgling Coopers initially hunt the native species imitating their parents, again hunting where their success is the greatest. Although not as efficient as their parents, they can certainly cause our birds to go into panic flight.
Coopers, like all wild birds are opportunistic feeders. If they find a source of food to their liking, they will stay with it until it becomes unproductive, and then move on to another area. They might visit several areas in a day or the same area several times but common sense tells us that if it becomes unproductive, they move on looking for new sources.
So, what does the above have to do with the topic? It has everything to do with learning to live with all raptors. If you do not understand your adversary, you are going to lose the battle and this is one battle I was determined not to lose. I refuse to let my loft become a feeding area for any winged predator. The following have permitted me to go from several birds lost to raptors 5 years ago to only one lost in 2013. To me, that is acceptable.
First and foremost, my birds have to feel secure in their loft and want to return to the security and comfort of their home. If birds are overcrowded in the loft, you have already lost part of the battle. I have been to lofts where there are too many birds for the perches and some end up sitting on the floor. The birds on the floor will probably be lost very quickly to raptors simply because they do not want to enter the loft to get bullied onto the floor. These same birds will linger outside where they are vulnerable to attack. I want a bare minimum of 20% more perches than I have birds in the loft.
Some flyers persist in giving their birds free access in and out of the loft once in awhile with the comment that they are letting their “pigeons be pigeons” and let them play in the sprinklers and fly around in the trees. We are not flying park Pigeons, we are flying birds that are trained to fly from the release point to their loft in the shortest time possible, and then trap in without delay.
The absolute, most vulnerable time for my flock is when I am releasing young birds for their first flight. I start preparing the birds for their first flight at least two weeks before their actual release. A wire enclosed cage is placed on the landing board and the trap boards are raised to permit free access in both directions. (Note: I originally used trap bobs but changed over to making the birds trap in under a board set at an angle because I had a Coopers go thru my trap bobs.) It takes a day or two for all birds to start using the new enclosure but before long they are out looking at the surrounding area and sunning themselves. They are able to see vultures and red-tail hawks soaring overhead and soon learn that they are not a threat. However, the first time a blue jay comes in towards their enclosure, they dive thru the trap. They seem to know instinctively that the rapidly approaching bird may be a threat. They are learning that an unidentified, fast approaching bird is to be avoided. The last couple of days before release, I wait until all, or most of the birds are in the enclosure, then I set the traps and let them trap back in. After a couple of days of this, they are ready for release. On the day before release, their last feeding is at 3P.M. and then what they do not eat is pulled away.
Then comes the big day of Release: I start watching for Coopers Hawks until I am relatively certain that none are in the immediate area. The traps are opened and the birds can come out for the first time without the enclosure. Some birds will immediately turn around and go back in the loft when they see that the enclosure is not in place. Most will come out and go to the loft top. Occasionally one will just take off, never to be seen again. If most of the birds have exited, I then set the traps for the ones that are out and then sit and watch the chaos of first flight. Not all birds will fly and some come right back to the landing board and trap in. Others make a short flight and then trap in. Others are out for a few hours and then trap in. Some try to go to the ground and I immediately put them back in the air. This year (2013) I had two “Fly-Aways” (one of which came home on the fifth day) but all others trapped in. The second day went better with all birds exiting the trap and returning thru the traps within 4 hours. Note that I stay visible outside the loft during these first releases to discourage raptor attacks.
Day three: All birds exited the loft and all except one took flight. Birds were going in all directions. The one remaining bird was on the roof top when out of nowhere, a Coopers hit the bird and took it to the ground. I got to the two birds and scared the Coopers off only to have my bird take off towards the trees with the Coopers in pursuit. I later found the bird under a neighbors oak tree where the Coopers had eaten the edible portions and left the un-edible remains. This was the only bird that I knowingly lost to a Coopers Hawk during 2013. The birds that were still out were in the stratosphere and were loosely in two flocks. It might be a very long day. Surprisingly, all birds, except one were in by 2:00PM and the missing bird showed up the next morning.
For the next three days my birds were in loft lockdown for the sole purpose of not having birds available to the Coopers. Again, this was done to keep the hawks from establishing a feeding area at or near my loft. Once I resumed flying, I was able to have all my birds flock flying within 10 days which meant the only time they would be vulnerable was when they returned to the loft. By flying them hungry, they readily trapped in. Once all birds Loft fly together, their time on the roof is usually well under a minute before they are safe and secure in the loft.
When flying young birds, I try keeping the cocks and hens separated. As a young bird starts showing an interest in the hens he is moved into the adjoining flight with the cocks. They can see each other thru the wire separating the two sexes but they can’t get together. This does two things for me. First, it keeps the pens a lot quieter which results in more rest for my birds between races. I also loft fly the sexes separately with the hens going out first and once the hens are all in, the cocks are released. The big advantage is that when the cocks return home, they rapidly trap in to get back next to the hens thus removing them from the outside where they are vulnerable to attack. I do not consider it a form of “widowhood”. I see it as a way of keeping my loft from being a raptor feeding area.
I previously mentioned flying my initial releases hungry. I do the same thing for all my loft flying (young and old birds alike) and training out to 100 miles, without exception. I want these birds to immediately trap in and not be vulnerable to attack. My feeding procedures do change during the racing season. When birds come home from races they will sometimes be a little slow to trap in due to being tired or just wondering where everyone else is but that does not open my birds to attack as the raptors have long since found other feeding areas.
I tried late afternoon or evening loft flying but soon gave that idea up for two basic reasons. First was that I couldn’t fly the birds hungry without going all day without feed prior to release. Second and more important was that some birds didn’t trap in before dark and then became subject to Great horned owl attack during the night. There is the additional problem of a raptor making an attack on birds that are out right at dark causing birds to not be able to trap in or land anywhere. Although I have never experienced this situation, I understand that birds will fly all night with substantial losses reported. It is easier for me to just totally eliminate these problems by only flying my birds in the morning.
As I add more birds to the loft (2nd and 3rd clutch), I simply let them decide when to start flying with the flock. If these late arrivals do not want to exit the loft, I do not force them out. It was a surprise to me how quickly they flew with the flock and trapped back in with the rest of the flight.
There are probably fifteen other pigeon lofts within a ten mile radius of my loft. Some of those lofts plus a few common pigeons in the area (less now than there were 5 years ago due to an increase in the raptor population) are the present raptor pigeon feeding areas which takes the pressure off of my loft.
I realize that some flyers, due to employment schedules, etc., cannot spend the time that I do outside with my birds during the initial releases but that is the critical period and every effort should be made to have someone visible on the ground. Have I totally solved my raptor problem? Absolute not, but I feel that I can find some way to adapt to any unforeseen threat.
I am now in the position of flying some very good birds with at least a fighting chance of retaining them for breeders and/or future race competition.
Churn Creek Loft