I don’t like birds. They creep me out. Sparrows and chickadees and all those tiny birds that peck around when you’re eating your lunch outside. From a distance I don’t mind them — in fact, I think birds can be quite majestic creatures.
However, raptors are a completely different story. I love them. They totally fascinate me; I could watch them for hours. I know that raptors are birds (“birds of prey,” in fact), but somehow they seem like a different species* to me.
Red-tailed Hawk in a tree behind Ritenour Building. Photo by Patrick Mansell.
So you can imagine my delight when a red-tailed hawk visited our office building the other day. The juvenile hawk perched in a tree just outside of our second-floor office windows. She was beautiful! And hunting. (Sidenote: It was unclear whether our feathered friend was male or female, and so for ease of reading our hawk will be a lady.) She hung out in the tree for a long while, surveying the parking lot full of construction workers’ trailers, the sidewalk, and the ivy. And maybe us.
Eventually our visitor hopped to some lower branches toward the ground, where we could no longer see her. Of course, several of us felt the need to go find out what she was doing. And we found her in the ivy, between our building and the sidewalk, devouring a squirrel. It was pretty awesome and gruesome at the same time.
The next day she returned to her tree, and eventually snagged a squirrel again — this time eating him while perched on the 8-foot fence next to the sidewalk. It was so gross I couldn’t stop watching. From my office window, that is.
Red-tail with a squirrel in ivy behind Ritenour. Photo by Patrick Mansell.
One of my coworkers refused to be excited about the appearance of the hawk. “What is happening to our world?” he exclaimed. “The hawks shouldn’t be this close to humans.”
Which led me to ponder why indeed the hawk was here on campus — our building is close to the HUB — the student union building — and we are very much in the midst of human traffic. Turns out this is not unusual behavior for a red-tail at all.
I spoke with Doug Steigerwalt, director of the Raptor Center at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center, who confirmed that our hawk friend was indeed an immature red-tailed hawk. Red-tails are what Steigerwalt called generalists, because you can find them all across North America — they are possibly the most common hawk on the continent.
Steigerwalt also told me that red-tails do well around people because we tend to create a good habitat for them to hunt. And he pointed out that there are a few known red-tails who reside in New York City — one of whom hatched in 1990 and is still living and breeding on a 5th Avenue building.
A view of the red-tail from behind. Photo by Patrick Mansell.
Back to our resident raptor, Steigerwalt said that she could easily have flown in from elsewhere in the country. Red-tails are partial migrants — they can spend winters in the same area that they breed in, which is not true of all birds.
This is our hawk friend’s first winter, said Steigerwalt, so she doesn’t have a pattern yet. If she survives this winter, she’ll be in good shape. Winter is basically the make-or-break period for red-tails. Many don’t make it through the winter, but those who do are likely to be able to survive many winters afterward.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a hawk outside your window, you can visit the Raptor Center where Steigerwalt works. There are two red-tails in residence there — a male and a female. They aren’t housed together, because they would compete for food and such, so they are separated. But interestingly, (to me, at least) one hawk bunks with a turkey vulture.
We haven’t seen our hawk in a while now, so she has probably moved on to a different area to hunt. I probably would have moved away from the clamor of campus as soon as possible if I were her, too. Although she certainly had many fat squirrels to feast on while she was here — if you’re a regular reader, you know how I feel about squirrels.
*Addendum, Dec. 16: My uncle (who read my post — hurrah!) kindly pointed out to me that raptors are a different species — “several in fact,” he says. He is right, and shame on me for not catching this. In terms of scientific classifications, a species is as specific as you can get.
As many of us were taught in general biology class, there are 7 major classifications, remembered by a mnemonic device such as “King Phillip Came Over For Good Spaghetti” — Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Genus, Species. All birds are in fact in the same class (Aves), not the same species. Thank you, Uncle Erich, for keeping it real!