As we wait hopefully for baby hawks in a nest overlooking Washington Square Park, the executive director of New York City Audubon, Glenn Phillips, responds to readers’ questions about behavioral clues that signal the eggs are hatching; the parenting instincts of raptors; and hawk attacks and territories in New York City.
Chronicling the red-tailed hawks of Washington Square Park.
If you would like to ask Mr. Phillips a question, please do so here.
These hawks have been such stellar examples of parenting, I wondered if there were cases of bad parenting in the raptor world, like we humans have. Fathers who won’t provide, mothers who won’t incubate or feed, etc. If so, other than that gene pool dying out, what happens to the mated pair? Do they continue to stay together, even as unsuccessful parents?
— Andy Greenberg, NYC
There is no evidence of “deadbeat dads” in the hawk world, though there are many bird species where a single parent (sometimes the dad, sometimes the mom) routinely takes sole responsibility for raising the young. The male northern jacana, for example, incubates eggs and raises chicks on his own. The female will defend her territory, which may include up to four males, but does not assist in rearing her young. Hummingbird dads, on the other hand, provide absolutely no care for their young.
Among red-tailed hawks, if one parent dies, it is difficult for the other to successfully raise the young on his or her own, but not impossible. Witness last year’s Riverside Park pair, where the female successfully fledged her young after the male was killed by accidental poisoning. Red-tailed hawks seem not particularly concerned about how successful they are at raising young, and will stick with a partner until one of them dies. Young red-tails often fail at their first nesting attempt, and males will remain faithful to females who have become infertile. Pale Male remained with Lola for many years after she stopped producing fertile eggs, and did not produce new fledglings until he acquired a new mate.
As we watch the Hawk Cam, what changes will we see in Rosie’s behavior when the eggs are about to hatch?
— City Room
Hatching could happen at any time in the next two weeks. As the day approaches, Rosie will spend more and more time on the nest, although she will likely spend less time actually sitting on the eggs. Rosie may begin to turn the eggs more frequently as hatching nears. The process can take from 24 to 36 hours for the first chick, while the second chick will likely emerge shortly thereafter.
This weekend I was (twice!) attacked by a hawk as I walked over a bridge over the Mississippi. The first time it felt like a basketball being thrown at my face! I googled “hawk attacks” and read a couple of stories about similar episodes – I’m thankful that the hawk did not have its talons out. I assume that I was near its nest. No one else around me was attacked. Any ideas about this?
— Carl from St. Louis, MO
Aggressive behavior in defense of nests is commonplace among birds. Approach too closely to any nest, be it a tiny hummingbird nest or a giant eagle nest, and you can expect to be attacked by one or more of the parents. Interestingly, urban red-tailed hawks will allow humans to approach much more closely to nest sites without being attacked. Generally, since the birds are trying to scare away, rather than catch, the potential predator, they don’t inflict much damage. It is possible that you were singled out because you reminded the hawk of someone who had harmed or harassed the bird in the past. A study with crows at the University of Washington showed that the birds were actually able to recognize individual faces. While we don’t know how well red-tailed hawks recognize humans, captive birds seem to recognize their caretakers.
Here in New York City back in 2008, N.Y.C. Audubon worked with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to ensure that both the hawks and the workmen would be safe during the construction project by scheduling construction away from the nest until after fledging.
Are city hawks territorial? We haven’t seen our hawk here on the Lower East Side (far East Broadway) in months. Wondering if s/he moved on, went off to mate, or met her demise.
— LK, New York, NY
Yes, red-tailed hawks in New York City are territorial. They will staunchly defend their territories, especially during the nesting season. Right now, most mature hawks are on their breeding territory, which is often smaller than their foraging territory. With one bird constantly on the nest, and the female sleeping on the nest, rather than in her off-season roost, you may be less likely to see hawks away from the nest this time of year.
During the late fall and the early winter, the city also has an influx of migratory red-tailed hawks from points farther north. It’s possible that the bird you were seeing was one of those migrants, and it has now returned to its breeding territory, or it could be that you’ve been seeing one of the Tompkins Square Park pair, which is now staying closer to the nest. Of course, it is also possible that the bird you were watching has succumbed to malnutrition, disease, or accidental poisoning. For the last, please encourage your neighbors to use more bird-friendly rodent control practices.