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Romance and Red-shouldered Hawks

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Romance and Red-shouldered Hawks

By Lisa Hug

It’s February, and there is romance in the air. If you know a resident pair of Red-shouldered Hawks in your neighborhood, you can hear that romance clearly. Their piercing, descending whistles penetrate the atmosphere and inform all creatures to stop and look up.

These hawks are among the most beautiful raptors in the world. Their wings and back are checkered black and white. They have contrasting black and white bands on their tail. They not only have red shoulders, but they have a solidly red chest and a finely barred red belly.  In fact, until about the middle of the twentieth century, they were called red-bellied hawks.

These striking hawks are not ashamed to show their love for each to the whole world. They rise up into the sky for all to see. They circle each other with their red bodies glowing in the sun.  They spread their black and white wings and tail.  The male often rises above the soaring female and arcs up and down.  They both call loudly to each other with their clear, repetitive, persistent whistles.  Finally, he dangles his yellowish-orange legs in front of her. She finds this display irresistible. The two are bonded together for yet another breeding season.

The pair of hawks puts on this display year after year. They may perform this ritual several times over a course of three weeks. They choose the warm, sunny days of late winter and early spring to act out this charming courtship display.  When the two are not displaying to each other, they are busy constructing or improving last year’s nest. This is a large, well-concealed stick structure usually in a high tree. The female then takes a few days to lay three or four eggs, one each morning.  She will do most of the incubating for the next five weeks. During this time, the male does the hunting. He will bring her small mammals, large insects, frogs, snakes, and occasionally a small bird.

After hatching, the chicks stay in the nest for about five weeks. We usually start seeing fledgling Red-shouldered Hawks around late May. They are similarly patterned to the adults, but the brilliant red, black and white colors are replaced with various shades of brown and tan. And they are noisy. They cry out loudly to the parents to bring them food. The parents respond to these cries with various prey items for about eight more weeks. But after that, the youngsters are on their own. They need to do their own hunting through the fall and winter. The young often wander around during this first year of life. They usually wait until their second year before finding a mate and performing the stunning ritual that their parents performed two years earlier.

It is hard to believe that Red-shouldered Hawks were rare in this part of California in the early part of the twentieth century. But in the latter part of the century, the hawks adapted to suburban areas that had large trees along creeks and starting using eucalyptus trees for nesting. This population increase of such a beautiful bird gives us hope for the future.

May we all learn from the Red-shouldered Hawk’s example this Valentine’s season and not be afraid to show our feelings to those for whom we care.