Red-shouldered hawks make interesting neighbors

This young red-shouldered hawk is about to take its first flight.

Last year we watched in trepidation as a pair of hawks built a nest practically in our back door. Literally, the tree they chose was only about forty feet or so from where we stand and watch out the kitchen door. However, it was at least 65 feet into the air, so they had no fear of us.

It was a little frightening to have such neighbors, with  small dogs and ornamental fish just underneath the nest at all times of the day. Finally, after getting their call on video tape and sending it to the Raptor Center in Auburn, I was told that my small dogs were way too big for these hawks, which they identified as red–shouldered hawks.

They might, however, the man said, attempt to fish in the pond. I had an answer to that. I let a small Forest Pansy redbud tree leaf out over the small pond which kept the parent birds from swooping down and gliding away with a koi or goldfish.

These hawks are considered medium–sized, with a breeding range that spans eastern North America and along the coast of California and north to northeastern-central Mexico. They are permanent residents throughout most of their range, though northern birds do migrate, mostly to Mexico. The man on the phone explained that they would probably come back year after year. They came back, just like he said. The pair raised two babies last year and three this time.

Their nest had gotten shabby over the winter. The first notice we had that they had returned was a line of white hawk poop running down the tree. They’d chosen well, a tall yellow pine with a tripod shaped crotch.  They repaired the nest with twigs and small branches until it was bigger and better than before.

Red–shouldered hawks are forest raptors. In the east they live in bottomland hardwood stands, flooded deciduous swamps and upland mixed deciduous-conifer forests. They tend to live in stands with an open subcanopy, which makes hunting easier. The nest they built here was in what used to be a pine thicket, but now has several mature oaks along with over two dozen pines.

With broad, rounded wings and medium-length tails that fan out when they soar, they are beautiful in flight. They frequently glide or soar with their wingtips pushed slightly forward, imparting a very distinctive, ‘reaching’ posture. It is one of our most uniquely marked common hawks, with barred reddish-peachy  underparts and a strongly banded tail. In flight, translucent crescents near the wingtips help to identify the species at a distance. They hunt prey ranging from mice to frogs and snakes.

Their cry is hauntingly beautiful. A sort of a plaintively whistling cry, and is one of the best ways of finding them in your woods.

I never saw them with any kind of prey, but I did see them coming back and forth to the nest to feed the babies.  They came more and more often in the last few weeks. Then, suddenly after a day of seeing them as much as every fifteen minutes or so, they just quit coming. It was puzzling and we wondered if they’d been shot. That’s not what it was, though; they were letting their young get hungry so that they would be forced to leave the nest. And it worked. Within three days of their withholding food the babies were climbing out on the limb closest to the nest, then flap-jumping to higher branches, all the while calling and calling to their parents.

According to The Cornell Lab, the American crow often mobs these hawks, sometimes the relationship isn’t so one-sided. They may chase one another, steal food from each other and both may attack a great Horned Owl and join forces to chase the owl out of the hawk’s territory.

The Great Horned Owl often takes nestling baby hawks, but the hawk sometimes turns the tables. While a red-shouldered hawk was once observed chasing a Great Horned Owl, its mate took a young owl out of its nest and ate it.

As we learned, these hawks return to the same nesting territory year after year. One occupied a territory in southern California for 16 consecutive years. The oldest known female red–shouldered hawk was at least 25 years and 10 months old when she was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in California in 2000. She had been banded there in 1974.

By the time they are five days old the nestling babies can shoot their feces over the edge of their nest. We watched them as they got a little older, climbing up on the edge, turning up their tail feathers and sending poop several feet away from the bottom of their tree. It was neat seeing how they kept from fouling their nest.

They often sat there high above as we worked in the garden, observing us with as much curiosity as we were watching them. I was a little sad when the last one flew away this week, but I’ve continued to hear their calls, all five of them, as the parents teach them how to hunt.

With a little luck they will rid of us some reptiles as they learn to fend for themselves.

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