Red-tailed Hawks in Glen Canyon Park
Jean Conner

One of my neighbors stopped me on the street the other day to tell me about seeing a red-tailed hawk catch a pigeon late in the afternoon in Christopher playground. The sun was low in the West. He saw the hawk come swooping in from the canyon with the sun behind it and grab one of the pigeons from the roof of the recreation center. That pigeon had hardly any chance at all. It sat there dozing in the sun, probably full of junk food it had scavenged from the Diamond Heights shopping center. It would have needed to look directly into the sun in order to see the hawk.

I thought, “What a smart hawk!” But since then I have learned that other people have seen hawks use the sun as a blind when after prey.

I wonder how many pigeon dinners our red-tailed hawks had this summer in Glen Canyon Park. Pigeon feeding behavior puts them at a disadvantage. The pigeon swallows food whole and will eat until its crop is full before it flies away to perch and digest. When feeding, pigeons seem reluctant to fly and will often freeze when danger threatens. That is a “sitting pigeon.” Smaller birds such as sparrows and house finches do not store food in their cropóthe pouched enlargement of the gullet that serves as a receptacle for food. They seek shelter at the slightest hint of danger.

A hawk such as the small sharp-shinned hawk, with its long, narrow tail and short, rounded wings can maneuver through a wooded area after small birds. But the red-tailed hawk, a large bird with broad wings and a broad, fanned tail, cannot maneuver easily through a forested area. It is built for gliding and soaring over open areas and swooping down to capture prey with its talons. It hunts rodents, lizards, snakes and insects as well as birds.

Most hawks migrate to warmer climates in late summer and fall, but our red-tailed hawks have no need to migrate and so remain here year-round. Courtship begins at the end of December, and you will see a pair flying and circling each other. The larger of the pair is the female. There are several theories as to why she has evolved to be larger than her mate. One is that she needs the extra bulk for egg producing and also because she spends a longer time on the nest. Some ornithologists have suggested that her larger size is a defense against a mate with a sharp beak and claws. In one of the courtship displays, the pair lock talons while in flight and tumble through the air. Sounds dangerous!

Both hawks take part in nest building. Our red-tails have sometimes had as many as three nests in the eucalyptus grove, but they seem to refurbish the old nest and re-use it. A couple of years ago something went wrong. It was noticed in early August that the nest had been taken over by a different pair of hawks. Something had happened to the former pair. Later, a neighbor living near the park reported finding a large quantity of hawk feathers in her yard.

The new couple raised one chick this summer and by early September the three red-tails were seen flying together. In early fall the young birds must leave their parents’ territory. Where there is much open land, the offspring set up housekeeping near their parents’ territory. Here, however, they may have to travel quite a distance to find an unoccupied area with a good food supply. The adult hawks will remain in the area, going their own way and ignoring each other until late December when they begin their courtship again.

Glen Canyon Park is fortunate to have suitable habitat for the red-tailed hawks. It is a wonderful experience to observe the family of hawks as they go through their yearly cycle.

-- From the Glen Park News.