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Letter From Skunk Hollow: A hawk family of uncommon feather settles in

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The hawks on June 9.

The first red-shouldered hawk that Sallie had ever seen turned up in Skunk Hollow this winter, and a memorable entrance it was.

She was sitting by the dining room windows, having breakfast and admiring the finches and chickadees feeding just beyond the glass, when a ball of feathered lightning struck one of the seed canisters.

Then a copper-headed hawk rose to a tree branch at the edge of the lawn, clutching a downy woodpecker, and began to dismantle it, tossing a cascade of black and white plumage to the snowy ground below.

This sent us to the field guides, where we made the ID and learned that the species was rather uncommon — though not exactly rare — in a woodland as close to the modern developed landscape as ours.

But despite this memorable encounter we nonetheless assumed, when a hawk nest appeared one early April day in an oak tree just off the driveway, that it was the work of red-tails.

Red-tailed hawks seem at times to be as common as turkey vultures or herons in our part of Wisconsin's St. Croix County. As new roadways associated with the Stillwater bridge replacement have expanded across the rural landscape, so have the utility poles that red-tails favor as hunting perches.

Besides, we’d had another family of red-tails some years ago in a similar spot along the driveway, though farther from the house. We watched four nestlings progress from fluffballs to gawky feathered things, then went out of town on vacation and returned to find the nest deserted.

I hoped for better luck this time and was encouraged, though also perplexed, that the nest project seemed initially to involve three hawks, perhaps in some kind of cooperative hunting and/or nesting endeavor of the kind that ravens undertake. But I didn’t really know much about hawks and after a little asking and Googling around I decided to just wait and see what happened.

And for several weeks not much happened at all. I could see the hawks wheeling overhead and jetting through the lower canopy, calling back and forth incessantly … but never, ever going near the nest while I was watching. Only once did I see them alight anywhere, and it was just two of them on a low limb at lunchtime, sharing a length of squirrel viscera or possibly part of a small snake.

When the female finally took her place on the nest, now screened by new foliage, she settled so deep below the rim that only a bit of her head or her back was visible, so it was impossible to see enough of her to note that her shoulders were red and her tail strictly black and white. That came later, with video surveillance.

* * *

The red-tail is probably the hawk most frequently sighted by Americans, for its numbers have been increasing and it has long occupied all parts of North America excepting the high Arctic — including, for example, midtown Manhattan, where the bird known as Pale Male led something of a recolonization a while back.

Partly this is for reasons that have made the red-shouldered hawk substantially scarcer over time, such that it is on the endangered-species rosters of Wisconsin (where it is listed as threatened) and Minnesota (where it’s in the “special concern” column).

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The hawks on June 10.

The main drivers are (1) decades of human persecution of a raptor erroneously thought to be a prodigious predator on poultry, as well as (2) DDT poisoning and (3) continuing habitat loss through conversion of woodlands to row-crop farming and housing developments. While seriously disadvantaging the forest-dwelling and -hunting red-shouldered hawk, these land-use changes have made life easier for the red-tail, which is content to scan a highway median from a utility pole, taking mice and rabbits and, every once in a while, a cat or small dog.

From the Encyclopedia of Life project:

Prior to 1900, the red-shouldered hawk was one of the most common North American raptors. Population densities have decreased precipitously due to the clearing of mature forests (principally the wet hardwood forest they prefer) since that time. The changing of habitats has led to a general population increase of the red-tailed hawk, an occasional predator of its cousin.

Additionally affecting the red-shouldered hawk was the greater availability of firearms in the early 1900s, leading to unchecked hunting of this and all other raptor species until conservation laws took effect in the latter half of the 20th century. Local forest regrowth and the ban of hunting has allowed red-shouldered hawk populations to become more stable again and the species is not currently considered conservation dependent.... However, human activity, including logging, poisoning from insecticides and industrial pollutants, continue to loom as threats to the species.

And from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:

Migratory counts suggest a slow decline in the number of red-shouldered hawks in the north-central United States. In Minnesota, the red-shouldered hawk has never been very common, and nesting in the state was not documented until 1935. Today, the species occurs as a summer resident from the southeastern corner through north-central Minnesota. An increase in reports during the last half-century suggests that the species may have expanded its range in the state to the north and west, although the secretive nature of this species and its overall low numbers may have allowed the hawk to be overlooked by earlier observers.

* * *

Red-shouldered hawks may be secretive in many behaviors, but not vocalization. From the moment a few weeks ago when the young nestlings at our place popped their downy heads above the rim, this family has rarely been silent.

The little ones have a persistent, mewling kee-ah that sounds a bit like a puppy; the adults answer from afar with strings of a dozen or more piercing KEE-AHs.

The young watch us moving around without any visible reaction, but the adults get agitated and so I’ve largely given up binoculars for a tripod-mounted point-and-shoot camera that monitors the nest with minimal human presence.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The hawks on June 17.

I have read, in accounts by John James Audubon among others, that these hawks can tell when a man is carrying a shotgun and get themselves out of harm’s way, but they don’t show any reaction to camera gear. Early on I adopted the practice of singing out “be cool” when I had to walk near the nest, in hopes they would learn to take it as a signal of reassurance, but have seen no real sign that it works.

There are three young in this brood, born from eggs laid at slightly different times, so they are at least several days apart in age and possibly more. They appeared first as downy, offwhite chicks but within days evolved into erect, large-eyed creatures resembling miniaturized ostriches.

Now, at perhaps three and a half weeks, the older two seem well on their way to being fully fledged and maybe 75 percent of full body size, although that is difficult to tell because the parents don't stay long at the nest and take pains to perch in places where they are mostly hidden from the driveway, rather than posing for family-album shots.

When they do come to call they are bearing food, typically something gray and furry, perhaps a mouse or a partial squirrel — grays only, so far, no reds. Some of the squirrel parts that proved inedible have ended up tossed in our utility trailer. And though I can’t prove it, I think the gray-squirrel population around the house is down considerably; the reds also seem rarer, warier and a little more focused as hurry across a patch of grass.

Earlier this week, the largest nestling appeared to have climbed up a portion of trunk and established herself (or himself) on a limb above the nest, although I suppose it’s possible this was accomplished with actual flight. During the big windstorms we’ve had recently, I’ve seen the young spread their wings wide and flap them in the gale, unruffled by the pitching of the nest tree.

I’ve also watched their remarkably efficient and tidy approach to defecation: Standing on the nest rim, the bird turns 180 degrees by a series of small, clutching steps to face into the nest, then tilts into a position rather like a headstand before launching a plug of whitewash some distance laterally through the air.

Alas, they seem to be burdened by the parasites that typically afflict their species. They spend a lot of their time scratching at and shaking their heads, which probably indicates that they’re carrying midges or ticks or have been attacked by various biting flies.

One spent an extended period the other day in an odd movement that looked like an effort to swallow or regurgitate something that was just a bit too large; later I read a parasitology paper noting that red-shouldered hawks typically carry a trichomonas that causes lesions in the mouth and esophagus.

Like most birds, these hawks are subject to very high rates of early mortality; a Wisconsin study from 2008 found that only 35 percent of nests produce young that reach maturity.

Still, we are crossing our fingers for this trio — and hoping that flying/hunting lessons will take place while we’re around to watch, from a respectful remove.

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Comments (1)

Thanks

I'm going to watch more carefully to try to see a red shouldered. I'm glad that you're part of the MN Post team.