Mar 30, 2008

Red-tails in Ft. Wright

John Coffey of Ft. Wright enjoys observing wildlife.  His and his neighbors Morris Road wooded backyards form a unique wildlife corridor.  “I’ve seen it all here,” said John.  “I’ve seen red fox, raccoons, opossum, squirrels, turkey, groundhogs and owls.  A herd of deer runs through here all the time.  I once saw coyotes chasing a deer through the woods.”  The stream in his backyard is home to salamanders and frogs.  He has even come across a pair of black rat snakes mating.


As John was drinking coffee a few Sunday’s ago, he noticed a pair of red-tailed hawks out the back window.  “They were putting on a big time show,” said John.  “I saw one hawk land on the ground and then the other.  I wondered what the heck the two were feeding on.  They kept flying up and back down and I couldn’t figure out what they were doing.  Then one landed on an evergreen and I saw it pull a twig and figured out they were building a nest.”  John watched the red-tails for three to four hours as both the male and female worked on building their nest in the woods behind his house.


Red-tail hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are North America’s most common and widespread hawks.  Settlement patterns have served the red-tail well, with their numbers actually increasing over the past century.  The clearing of trees in the east has provided hunting areas, and planting trees in the west have provided nest sites.  Red-tail hawks are a common sight along roadsides where they perch on utility poles, fencerows and trees to hunt small prey. 


Red-tail hawks belong to the Buteo family of hawks; large soaring hawks with broad wings and broad tails.  Red-tails weigh between 2 and 4 pounds with a wingspan of four feet.  As with most raptors, the female is nearly one-third larger than the male.  They also have excellent eyesight, 8 times more powerful than a human’s.  They can live up to 20-plus years in the wild.


Red-tails are carnivores with 85 to 90% of their diet composed of small rodents.  “Red-tail hawks should be protected for the same reasons we should be conserving populations of other small rodent predators,” said Dr. Samuel Mazzer, Professor Emeritus, Kent State University Department of Biological Sciences.  “That reason is to be found in the ‘balance of nature.’  Predators are important as nature’s primary natural defense against excessive numbers of ground squirrels, rats, mice and other small rodents.  Depressed predator populations are typically reflected by increases, often explosive increases, in their prey populations.  And, in the case of small mammals, large population increases are typically associated with outbreaks of disease. 


John’s hawks will soon finish construction of their nest, which is at least 50-feet high in the fork of a large tree.  By May the female will be incubating her eggs (usually two, but sometimes up to five).  Incubation takes approximately one month and is maintained almost entirely by the female.  The male feeds the female as she’s on the nest.  When hatched, the down-covered chicks will keep both parents busy hunting food.  The young fledge at about 45 days. 


If John’s red-tails breed successfully this year, chances are he’ll be able to watch them again next year.  Red-tail hawks mate for life and usually remain loyal to a successful nest site.  If an old nest is weather damaged, layers of new nesting material are added. Red-tails typically do not begin breeding until their third year.


Red-tail hawks are adaptable birds and will frequently nest in suburban areas with wooded surroundings.  They are not usually city-dwellers…at least not until Pale Male came along.


Pale Male is probably the most famous red-tail hawk of all time.  He is the subject of at least two books, a PBS documentary and numerous radio segments.  He’s been featured in magazines and newspapers all over the world.  He even has his own website,  He resides at one of the swankiest addresses in New York City.


Pale Male (named because of his light coloration) has lived at a penthouse nest on Fifth Avenue since 1993 where he and his mates have fledged 23 chicks.  Until Pale Male showed up, it is believed that red-tailed hawks had never before nested in modern-day Manhattan.  The hawks took up residence on metal pigeon spikes, which proved to be the perfect foundation for a large hawk’s nest. 


Unfortunately though, the birds were served an eviction notice in December of 2004.  Real estate mogul Richard Cohen (husband of TV personality Paula Zahn) had the nest torn down.  What ensued was pandemonium.  Nature lovers, public officials, grassroots activists, the media, New York City Audubon, and even actress Mary Tyler Moore protested Pale Male and his most recent mate Lola’s eviction.  Audubon collected more than 10,000 signatures urging Cohen to put back the nest, and Cohen himself received 5,000 letters in support of keeping the nest.  Protesters braved the cold and organized a vigil outside the building.  The hawks’ predicament was noted in NYC papers and as far away as India and Saudi Arabia


Pale Male had won the hearts of New Yorkers and the world.  The pressure was too much for Cohen.  Exactly three weeks after the pigeon spikes were removed they were again restored for the birds.  Pale Male and Lola have again taken up residence in their high-end loft.  John Flicker, president of National Audubon, summed it up well, “Pale Male is a symbol of hope and a reminder that we can make room for a piece of the wild, if only on a window ledge.” 



Contact Gayle at her website for nest boxes at or at


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