A bird’s eye view of hawks

Two Red-tailed hawks in ta pine tree

Two hawks in a pine tree

Five years ago, we planted a prairie patch in our front yard. Since then, we’ve noticed an increase in raptors. We hear more owls hooting in the night. We see more hawks soaring high above.

Frequently, I can look to the dead branches at the top of the willow tree and see a hawk sitting there. The lunch-time picking is easy with the abundance of wildlife in the prairie below.

In recent weeks, the piercing “kee-yeer” call of hawks fills the air each time I walk down the driveway to pick up the paper or take my morning walk. I’ve been startled to have hawks fly out of the lower branches of the evergreen trees by our driveway, swooping in front of me at near eye level. I found it odd to see two hawks sitting on the edge of the driveway one morning.

All of these occurrences got me looking around more closely. When I saw several hawks in the willow tree, I determined that the increased food supply of the prairie also made this an appealing nesting area. I surmise that the two hawks flying out of the low branches and sitting on the ground are just learning to fly. The repeated kee-yeers are the adults and young calling to each other.

Juvenile, San Joaquin Marsh, Orange Co., 1-07. © John  C. Avise.

Juvenile, Red-shouldered Hawk © John C. Avise.

Yesterday, one of the hawks perched on the backyard playground set long enough that I could identify it as a Red-shouldered Hawk. My Audubon bird book says these hawks hunt “by sitting quietly on a low perch, then dropping down to capture snakes and frogs. They also eat insects and small mammals.”

Since my office looks out on the front yard, I have a first class seat for hawk watching.

The ones I believe are younger hawks spend a lot of time swooping back and forth from tree to tree. While adult hawks always seem to be high in the sky or at the top of threes, these youngsters spend most of their time flying less than 15 feet off the ground.

Recently, they practiced their hunting skills on a squirrel, chasing it from tree to tree. It appeared they were trying to corner it between them. At one point, one hawk landed in a tree to the north. The other hawk perched in a tree 40 feet to the south. The squirrel clung to a tree between them, looking back and forth, unsure which direction to go. The hawks did not go in for the kill and eventually flew off.

This situation reminded me of a video clip I’d seen recently recording the life of Bald Eagles. In the show, one young eagle snatched a duck off a lake and flew off. Other eagles joined him and they appeared to play catch with their prey, one tossing the duck and another swooping  in to catch it. The narrator commented that this was a big moment in the life of the eagles when they learned to capture their own food.

These hawks must be at the same stage in their development, learning the skills to hunt while still getting most of their food from their parents.

Until now, my bird watching has focused on the pretty little songbirds that frequent our feeders. It’s exciting to have this opportunity to observe the impressive birds of prey for an extended period.