By Leslie Day
We hear them throughout the day, their high-pitched, keening, keeeeeeearr, over and over again, calling for their parents to feed them a pigeon, a rat, a squirrel. Lucky us to have three gorgeous juvenile red-tail hawks: Buteo jamaicensis: Buteo: a kind of hawk; jamaicensis: the island of Jamaica where specimens were given their scientific name. Their huge nest sits on the fire escape of the top floor of a building high on a hill, just east, above and behind Broadway and the tasty and fun Buddha Beer Bar. Throughout May we watched the parents carry food to the nestlings and now here they are – outside our window!
There are more than 40 known pairs of breeding red tails throughout the five boroughs. Pale Male, the Fifth Avenue hawk has successfully raised his young this spring with his fifth mate after the previous four died from rat poisoning.
Our largest hawk, the red tail is dark brown above, has a white chest with brown streaks and a horizontal rufous band across the tail. The juvenile’s tail is vertically banded with brown and they have pale yellow eyes that mature to dark brown. Red tails can be more than 2 feet long with a wingspan of over 5 feet.
These beautiful birds of prey mate for life, but feeding on poisoned pigeons or rats shortens their lives. When this occurs the spouse will immediately find another mate. Red tails are typically shy of humans, but not in New York City, where these hawks nest on apartment buildings and hunt, roost, and fly near New Yorkers in parks and on city streets.
They build their nests both in trees and on ledges of apartment buildings, churches, hotels and skyscrapers. These nests are huge: close to 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet high, constructed with large deciduous branches and lined with fresh green sprigs in early spring. Both parents build the nest, but the female spends more time arranging the bowl, where she lays 2 -3 brown or red speckled white eggs. The male provides most of the food for the family. Fledglings stay close to the parents and may even come back to the nest at night. Parents continue to provide food for the nestlings up to two months after fledging, which is why we hear them, still begging for food.
Red tails are carnivores, feeding on rodents, pigeons, doves, and other songbirds. When you hear crows and blue jays or see a flock of pigeons flying, look for this large hawk. Nearby birds, even tiny sparrows will “mob” it by attacking as a group to drive it away from their nests.
By early autumn our three babies will venture away from the neighborhood and find a territory of their own and next year we should have more of these huge and beautiful babies learning to hunt and survive in our city.