There is no denying that red-tailed hawks are birds of prey, but many Fallbrook residents find it fascinating to watch them turn sweeping circles in the air on their broad, rounded wings. And these hawks appear to think the Fallbrook countryside is the perfect area to raise their chicks.
Photographer/artist Robert Sommers has been taking pictures of one particular red-tailed hawk’s nest for five or six years, he said.
“Nestled high in a Fallbrook sycamore, the hawk mothers come back and lay two to three chicks every year, something that has probably occurred annually since time immemorial,” said Sommers, who situates himself far away from the nest, using a powerful telephoto lens.
“I take hundreds of shots every season and am privileged to see the small hawks grow up and phase through various color shifts until they eventually fly off on their own,” he said.
The reason the birds favor the area is because they are fond of open areas and farm land, in addition to urban settings.
“In our area, that can be along the freeway or any of our other roadways, plus open fields,” explained Bill Moramarco, a local birder. “I notice them perched on light poles along Interstate 15 quite often.”
Perched high in a tree or telephone pole, the keen-eyed hawk observes and waits patiently for its food.
“From my experience, their most popular targets are rabbits and squirrels in our region; I have seen a few flying with snakes, also,” said Moramarco. Known colloquially in the United States as the “chickenhawk,” experts have said it rarely preys on standard-sized chickens.
When the hawks come to rest, they like to be a minimum of 10 to 15 feet off the ground. In building nests, they value a solid foundation.
“Their nest is usually in the crotch of a large tree with a commanding view,” said Moramarco. “I have seen these nests in conifers, eucalyptus, and sycamore trees. Some use the same nest every year, renewing the evergreen sprigs and leaves in the inner lining.”
Moramarco concurs with Sommers, that female red-tailed hawks will lay two or three eggs once a year.
“Both parents take turns incubating them from 30 to 35 days,” said Moramarco. “When the young hatch, they are immobile, downy, and their eyes are open.”
Sommers said he is eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new chicks this year in the nest he watches.
“The mother is currently at the end of her 28- to 32-day cycle as we speak and any day now I expect to see this year’s brood; needless to say, this is one of my very favorite times of year,” said Sommers.
Moramarco said once the chicks arrive, the adult hawks “feed them from 45 to 46 days, when they fledge (leave the nest).” He said the youngsters are the same size as their parents at that time.
According to National Geographic, the average life span of a red-tailed hawk in the wild can be 21 years.
The color of this variety of hawk is intriguing, as there are 14 recognized subspecies.
“I am amazed at the number of color variations of these birds,” said Sommers.
Moramarco said a red-tailed hawk’s age is revealed in its tail feathers.
“You can tell the age of a red-tailed hawk by the color of its tail feathers; the adults have the all red colored tail,” he said. “When a young bird (juvenile) fledges from its nest, its tail has alternating light and dark brown, thin bands across its tail with a slightly wider terminal band. It takes a full year to grow the red tail feathers.”
When mature hawks embark upon mating, it can become an intricate movement of art in the air.
“One of the courting behaviors that the red-tailed hawk has that I find interesting is an aerial display,” said Moramarco. “The pair spiral and recross, with the male circling behind and above the female. He will stoop (dive) at her, with their feet touching or interlocking as she rolls over. I have observed this behavior myself only twice. Most of the time I have only witnessed the male circling the female with his legs extended (landing gear down).”
Sommers has viewed these behaviors as well.
“I feel privileged to have seen some intimate behavior patterns that a casual viewer might miss,” he said.
Red-tailed hawks are the most common hawk in North America and are a top choice for falconry in the United States (within certain guidelines). Females can weigh between 32 and 71 oz., averaging 2.7 pounds. Their wingspan can range from 41 to 56 inches; and tail between 7.5 and 9.8 inches. The males are typically 25 percent smaller than the females.