Mar 05 2009


For months the crows have been loud and obnoxious while red-tailed hawks have been present but not particularly noticeable.  This month they switch roles.  It’s courtship time.

Birds have many courtship rituals.  Some species sing, some dance, some display their feathers and some display their flying skills.  Prairie-nesting songbirds, such as bobolinks, sing while hovering above their territory.  Hawks and falcons soar and chase in powerful flight displays. 

That’s why we’re seeing a lot of red-tailed hawks lately.  In winter they don’t care to be noticed but now they’re conspicuous, soaring to claim their territories and court their mates.

Red-tails’ courtship and territory displays are very similar.  You may see a pair soaring together, then one drops his legs to show his talons.  Sometimes one of the pair performs an undulating flight like a woodpecker, repeatedly diving down with wings closed, then flying up.  You know the pair is courting if the two stay together when the flight is over instead of one leaving in a rush. 

Merely flying is not enough for red-tailed hawks.  At this time of year they scream to attract attention.  Their sound is so blood-curdling that foley editors sometimes use it – incorrectly! – as the voice of the bald eagle on videos.  This bad coupling of sound to picture drives me nuts.

When hawks and falcons are a mated pair, they soar together.  Red-tail pairs wheel in the same patch of sky, peregrines fly a powerful ballet.  In both cases one of the pair will often fold its wings and make a beeline for the nest area.  The other mate usually follows to continue courting there.  Peregrines then bow at the nest; red-tailed hawks often mate there.

Meanwhile the crows go silent.  It’s hard to believe but there will be a day when you just won’t notice crows any more.  As soon as they nest they become very secretive, switching from obnoxious to oblique behavior.  You will see them but you won’t hear them.

Will you notice when the crows change their ways?  It usually takes me a while.  Noticing an absence is a lot harder than noticing an arrival.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Conspicuous”

  1. Carlaon 05 Mar 2009 at 4:30 pm

    The gulls are back at the Northern Lights shopping center in Baden, PA. I thought I read an article about where they come from and why the show up there just about every year. Was it on your site?

  2. Kate St. Johnon 05 Mar 2009 at 4:51 pm

    Though I’ve mentioned gull migration in my January & February phenology blogs they were only one-liners. Perhaps you saw it on Chuck Tague’s blog? If you find the spot, let me know. I’m interested too.

  3. Cory DeSteinon 28 Mar 2009 at 7:53 pm

    My little list in my head of red tailed hawk nests is up to 5 local red tailed hawk nests, sadly 2 from last year were cut down….One near the Allegheny County Airport the other in Castle Shannon…..Its a shame for those 2 but the other 5(especially the two above Rt. 28 are thriving!!!) And I was suprised two years ago to discover the nest above 367 at the Edgewood Swissvale Exit!!

  4. Tracion 20 May 2009 at 10:06 am

    Kate –
    This morning I was walking on Stanton Avenue, which runs along the Allegheny Cemetary border. I always look for Hawks and generally see one high, high up, circling. But today, I saw a huge bird, with a white head and sort of non-descript brownish body flying very low, over the houses toward the Shop and Save on Butler.

    It was gliding, slowly. I normally carry my camera but didn’t have it.

    What do you think it was? It seemed too big to be a hawk and it was flying so low I could see it’s legs and talons!! Was it some sort of vulture?

    I’m going to carry my camera the rest of the week, in the hopes I see it again.

  5. Kate St. Johnon 20 May 2009 at 10:14 am

    hmmm.. What color was its tail?

  6. Tracion 20 May 2009 at 10:53 am

    The sun was glaring and the bird was right in that glare – so the body seemed pretty non-descript! A brownish…in my mind’s eye right now I want to say I saw some black on the tail? I remember the head was white or paler than the body and I thought, “That can not be an eagle.” It’s feet were bright in comparison…the talon part.

    I’m going to carry the old digital and hope I see it again. I have never seen a hawk fly that low and it was a big bird. The cemetary hosts lots of deer and geese, racoon, possum…could it have been some sort of vulture? Curiosity is going to drive me crazy!! :)

  7. Kate St. Johnon 20 May 2009 at 10:59 am

    I can’t tell. I hope you get a picture.

  8. Tracion 21 May 2009 at 12:25 pm

    No luck this morning – but I did find a small fledgling of a bird (which turned out to be a Starling) during my walk. His belly looked like he’d been drug under a car I couldn’t find a nest (he was on the sidewalk of Stanton) and his belly was a mass of red encrusted something…so I carried him the mile home. I’m shocked he didn’t die from the stress.

    I took him to the Wildlife Center where they identified him as Starling (and another person arrived with another one!!). The woman there said she thought the bird’s head, I saw, only appeared white because I was looking up under it. She said Redtailed Hawk were common in this area (Lawrenceville/Verona) – so maybe that was it. I hope to see it again one day.

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