Monday, June 15, 2009

Are our hawks doing OK?

Now that our hawks have left the nest it is much harder to know how they are doing. Those of us fortunate to be able to observe down on the Parkway and around the Franklin Institute have had many sightings of the hawks engaged indifferent behaviors. John Blakeman, our raptor biologist from Ohio, provides this commentary on what have been seeing over the last couple of weeks.

John Blakeman writes:

"What you are now seeing with the fledged eyasses over in the trees and on the roof is, like all of the previous marvels of this hawk family, rather typical (and yes, marvelous) stuff.

As you noted, the eyasses are starting to get the fly-through-the-air thing down. This they pick up in just a day or two. No problems out there in the bare air. A slight miscalculation in yaw, pitch, or roll up there in the sky yields no insurmountable difficulty.

But landing, especially on a tree branch amongst a bunch of others, does. You have noted how awkward the eyass's landings have been. This will continue to some degree until July, when they'll have it all figured out.

And you noted the awkward difficulty one of the eyasses had in a tree trying to pull apart a rat that a parent had provided. That's a tough thing to do, to be able to first remain upright and balanced on that thin branch, while at the same time trying to balance the dead rat also on the branch, while at the same time trying to reach down and pull the rat apart. Yep, it fell out of the eyass's talons -- probably just before the eyass herself would have fallen off the branch.

Learning how to coordinate all of these various balance points doesn't come naturally. In a few weeks, the eyasses will have learned how to take off, land, and hold on to prey species while ripping them apart into tidbit-sized pieces. But for a while, watching all of this can be like watching a toddler trying to stuff a spoonful of breakfast into his mouth. For baby humans, they just have to sit there and try to get the spoon in the right place. For the hawk, she's got to keep her balance on the limb, hold on to the prey, powerfully rip open the prey with her beak and strong back and neck muscles, and then swallow the ripped-off piece of rat flesh. To do that easily and consistently requires some practice. That's what the parents are watching their eyasses learn how to do right now.

And all of the hawk watchers there in Philadelphia get to see this, too. Out here in rural areas, the hawks stay away from nearby humans, who so seldom get to see so closely these hawk behaviors.

For a good time, as you mentioned, not a single hawk, eyass or haggard, was to be seen. Then, out of nowhere they started to appear. Welcome to red-tailed hawk watching. The birds were very much in the area, probably not a quarter mile away, mostly just a block or two. But they were probably perched in a hunting mode, looking for lunch. As soon as somebody found lunch, a rat perhaps, everyone else saw that and the family came together within a few hundred yards of the nest. This will happen time and again. It's the way of red-tail families in early summer.

One other thing that all of the hawk watchers in Philadelphia should be aware of, and it's something I tried to impress upon the legion of hawk watchers in Central Park in New York City. Please take special pride in your abilities to watch the The Franklin Institutes's red-tail family. It's unlike anything we are allowed to see out here in more typical, rural red-tail habitats. Out here, our red-tails have a decided natural fear, even a repulsion, of humans.

As a raptor biologist I have to go to great lengths to obscure my presence anywhere near a red-tail's nest if I want to see anything like you got to see at the Franklin Institute. If I were to walk within two football fields of a nest up in an Ohio woodlot, the sitting formel will either hunker down, or simply fly off the nest. I get to see nothing so intimately on the nest as we all did with the Institute nestcam.

Now along the Parkway, you will be able to see the birds flying over the trees, sitting in them, and acting quite naturally, in utter disregard of the humans below. Please take delightful and appreciative advantage of this. Out here in typical rural red-tail habitats, we never are able to see the birds so closely. You've got it better than you know!

My best.
--John Blakeman


  1. I hope..and I am sure we all appreciate this blessing! It's at least a 3 credit course in natural biology.

  2. Hello!
    Enjoyed article but differ on access to hawks in rural areas. I live next to Lake Talquin in Florida and have spent the past two months watching a hawk family from eggs to 3 little ET look alikes and now to flight right here within 200 feet from my door. Currently I am watching Fred and Wilma's two remaining offspring learn to hunt and listen to them constantly screaming. I fancy myself that they respond to my efforts to whistle back. I have turned to the Framklin Institute to learn about what my hawks will do next!