Swainson’s Hawk Throwing A Pellet

And there’s a bit of a mystery involved with this one.

I photographed this bird in June of 2016 in Montana’s Centennial Valley. I wasn’t close to the hawk so image quality is mediocre because these photos have been cropped significantly but I think they’re good enough for my purposes today – to document something unusual that has my wee brain slightly baffled.


As I watched the hawk through my lens it began to retch so I knew it was trying to throw a pellet. Pellets often get stuck in their upper throat for a few moments but here we see part of it finally coming out.



Notice that the pellet has dropped straight down. That’s when things started to get a little strange.



Then it broke up into pieces and took a sharp right turn, having not dropped at all since the previous shot. And the mystery deepened when…



the pellet pieces then dropped sharply again until they were out of the frame.

I took these photos 15 months ago and apparently didn’t look at them carefully back then but when reviewing them last night I was stymied. Why did the pellet take such a zig-zag route to the ground? And why did it break up in the air? I still don’t know the answers but I’ve done some speculating:

  • Perhaps the wind was blowing, hard. I don’t remember wind on that morning and the hawk doesn’t look buffeted by wind in any of my photos but after all this is Montana! I suppose a gust could have blown the pellet to the right and broken it apart but that doesn’t seem likely for two reasons – fresh pellets I’ve seen seem too cohesive to be broken apart by wind and the pellet pieces changed directions too fast, too often and too abruptly for this to be wind caused.
  • There’s another possibility. You’ll notice by passing your cursor over the images (doing so makes the image file number appear on all but some handheld devices) that there are two photos missing between the second and third images. For whatever reason I apparently deleted them many months ago and now I wish I hadn’t. Maybe, just maybe, the pellet we see in the third and fourth photos is a second one, expelled immediately after the pellet in the first and second shots. And that second pellet was flung to the side when the hawk shook its head to aid in expelling it. Raptors sometimes do exactly that (shake their heads) to help get rid of a stubborn pellet.

To me the second scenario seems most likely, partly because the head shaking could account for the reason the pellet broke up into pieces. But since these shots were apparently taken in a burst, only .3 second would have passed between the second and third photo (to account for the two missing images) and I’m not sure that would have been enough time for the first pellet to drop completely out of frame and the second one to be expelled by shaking and then travel as far is it did in the third shot. If it was enough time it was close.

I sure wish I hadn’t deleted those two photos which might have confirmed what really happened.

Much ado about nothing I suppose but I have a hard time putting little mysteries like this behind me…




28 comments to Swainson’s Hawk Throwing A Pellet

  • Alan Jones

    In the first shot there appears to be a lump remaining in the hawk’s gullet. My thought is that is the second pellet.

  • Reading through the comments I am, as always, educated and amused. Ejecting things from a gullet is often such a violent procedure I would lean towards a head shake – but make the assertion from a position of ignorance.

    • EC, usually when I’ve seen a raptor shake its head to get rid of a stubborn pellet it’s been a second one lined up right after the first one. For some reason they seem to have more difficulty expelling the second one.

  • Laura Culley

    I’m with Valerie on this one! They often shake their head violently in the last stages of expelling a cast. There’s also the issue that sometimes the castings contain the remnants of two different meals so they’re not really connected, but instead, kind of stacked one to the other.
    Would it surprise you to know that I often keep castings? You just never know when you need one to take to an ed program so the participants can see one up close and personal 😉
    I was going to challenge you on Friday to posting just ONE post without picking even one nit. Although I took great time and care in writing those responses, I ended up deleting them (picking my own nits if you will), figuring it was far too difficult a task for a perfectionist like you. Plus, the nits are always there for the picking. HEHEHE!
    Have we heard from Patty recently? Just wondering if she’s been around and I didn’t see it. I’ve been cleaning and organizing.

  • April Olson

    I love a good mystery!

  • Valerie Baldwin

    Puzzle no more. My Harris’s hawk at the last second does a very quick flick of the head to get the pellet out of his mouth. It always moves in the air to one side or the other. Maybe the motion to get the pellet into his mouth is not enough to expel it.

  • Joanne OBrien

    Haha! “The Mysterious Case of the Moving Pellet”. I have no idea but it does make for an amusing post. Ah… the vagaries of bird photography 🙂

  • Susan Stone

    Ron, I’ll give you flak for your itchy trigger finger, too. I get it all the time from my husband about whether or not to keep things. I don’t like having tons of extra stuff around for no reason, and he likes to keep everything, “because it might be useful someday” (even 20 years down the line). But I am a lot more cautious about deleting bad images, and have kept some pretty awful ones, just because they are the only documentation I have of something. I like your second theory about why the pellet traveled in such a strange direction. At least for me, it’s the only thing that makes sense.

    • Dick Harlow

      Oh, Oh I’m with your husband Susan – its called depression cycosis (sp). Save for you will never know when you might need it! VBG!

    • Susan, I’m sure I have more “old stuff” laying around than I’ll ever need but I don’t go as overboard in that arena as some folks do.

      • April Olson

        As and artist I tend to hoard things I might use in a piece. But my stuff is odd pieces of rocks, sticks, bark, seed pods, broken glass. It drives my husband nuts. Every trip or hike I tuck some bracken into the car to take home.

  • Linda Berkemeier

    Could the pellet have bounced of the barbed wire? Not easy to determine perspective on my phone screen.

  • Dick Harlow

    Yep, like your second idea! And, I think Marty has given a probable reason. But, all this does is psychologically biases your culling procedure in the future. VBG!!
    As is so often the case chalk it up to experience!

  • Marty K

    Ahhh, the curse of the itchy trigger finger strikes again. It would have been cool to have those two shots, but I don’t think you need them to solve The Case of the Second Pellet or This Bird is a Fast Barfer. 😉

    The second shot shows the pellet at about the same position as the one in the first shot. By your last shot, the pieces are almost out of frame. If there had been a third shot, they’d be gone, so it’s totally conceivable that the first pellet fell out of frame in the two missing shots. Chalk one up for 9.8 m/s2! 😉

    • Ha, I just KNEW I was gonna catch flak for my “itchy trigger finger, Marty! 🙂 I suspect it’ll continue if Elephant’s Child sees this later today…

  • Judy Gusick

    Huh!? Interesting puzzle for sure. It does appear that the hawk wasn’t “finished” since it’s mouth was still pretty wide open in the last 2 photo’s. Suspect the 2nd theory is the correct one…………:)

  • Judy Eberspaecher

    Certainly the hawk’s head is turned at a different angle in the last two frames so I think your second hypothesis is the answer.
    Whenever you say you delete images, I cringe (but admire you) as I always think that you might be sorry. However, it’s definitely not the end of the world!

    • Judy, I keep many photos that have no particular merit other than to possibly help me to tell a story on my blog. It’s hard to know where to draw the line when I’m culling so I do try to err on the safe side which means I save a significant number of mediocre images. This time I just screwed up…