Predators and Prey

Hawks killing quail is a common event in our backyard. We often find the remains (feathers) of a dove or quail, indicating that our yard is a frequent killing ground. This time, however, a rattlesnake got lucky and happened to be in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of a fortuitous situation.

This past Memorial Day (30 May), at about 2:30 PM, on a clear afternoon, my wife Shanna was outside on our rear patio watching our Chihuahua, Buddy, romp about the yard. We always keep an eye on Buddy because with a Mesquite bosque and riparian area just behind our home we encounter many different critters. We have a resident Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) making kills of dove and quail on a regular basis, so we try to keep a close watch on Buddy.

On 30 May, the Cooper’s Hawk executed a series of sweeps between our house and a neighbor’s house and killed a Gambel’s Quail (Callipepla gambelii) just outside our rear fence. Shanna called me to grab the camera as something “neat” had just occurred. I picked up my Nikon D300 with a 70-200 mm 2.8 lens attached and rushed out to see what was going on. About 15 feet just over the fence was the Cooper’s Hawk with wings outstretched and a quail in its talons. I took several photos while observing the hawk attempting unsuccessfully to remove the quail from a low crotch of a Prickly Pear Cactus where it had been lodged—driven there by the impact. I did not want to unnecessarily spook the hawk, but as I approached to get a better view, the Hawk flew up and landed on the fence a few yards away. It was watching me with great interest. Trying to help, I opened the gate and stepped out to move the quail to a place where the hawk would have an easier time retrieving its meal. After a minute or so the hawk flew off, landing in a distant mesquite. After waiting another minute I figured that the hawk was not going to return so I planned to move the Quail this time to an open area so another animal might find and consume it. I needn’t have bothered. As I approached the quail I was surprised to see a four foot long Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) with the quail’s head already in its mouth! The thought flashed through my mind that the snake was probably there when I reached down and moved the bird from the grasp of the cactus—not a foot from my hand. The snake was obviously intent on taking the quail for its own meal as it wasn’t two minutes from the time I moved the bird until I returned to move it again to see it already being consumed. Timing is everything.

I’ve seen Crotalus atrox and other snakes consume different mammals and reptiles but I’ve never had the pleasure of watching up close a Crotalus atrox steal and consume a bird of any kind. I believe that the hawk was intimidated by the snake and perhaps the reason it flew off without coming back for its prey. With this development, I ran back into the house for my Nikon D700 with the 105 mm Macro lens to finish documenting this most interesting event with photos.

As you can see in the photos (Figures 3-5) the quail looks almost too large for the snake to consume. It pulled the prey into the mouth using its fangs on one side and then the other. This brought the wings closer together to help facilitate swallowing larger prey. The bottom left and right jaw bones are not connected thus allowing the bottom jaw to spread very wide to accommodate large prey items.  Notice how much the skin stretches. (see how far apart the scales become in Figure 4). Once the wings and body are past the jaws, the bird disappears quite rapidly. As the last of the quail enters the throat, the jaws are out of alignment, but with a couple movements, the jaws are realigned once again. The snake is then ready to strike again. Figure 5 clearly shows how the lower jaw can flex and stretch to allow prey to be consumed.

Hawks killing quail is a common event in our back- yard. We often find the remains (feathers) of a dove or quail, indicating that our yard is a frequent killing ground. This time, however, a rattlesnake got lucky and happened to be in the right place at the right time, taking advantage of a fortuitous situation. The quail was killed by another animal, but then consumed by the opportunistic Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake within minutes of the kill. I felt very fortunate to have witnessed this.

When the snake was done eating and ready to move off, I took the liberty to move the snake further away from the neighborhood and release it into a safer habitat. I was particularly careful when handling the snake as I did not want it to regurgitate the freshly eaten meal, as they often do when being harassed. After its release I continued to observe and photograph it until I felt that it was safe and secure.

I try to educate the neighborhood to not kill or disturb any snakes or other animals, and now, I often receive calls to remove animals my neighbors encounter, which prevents unnecessary mortalities.


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This article was written by Jerry Schudda for the Tucson Herpetological Society, all photos were made by Jerry Schudda