Sunday, June 28, 2009

Where do hawks sleep?

Earlier this week, we had really severe thunderstorms in Philadelphia. I thought about the hawks in the midst of hail, high winds and lightning, and after the storms abated that night, hoped that they had found shelter and could sleep.

"But where and how do hawks sleep?" I asked John Bateman, and here is his fascinating reply:

"Good question. Where do hawks sleep? It’s a question every hawk watcher eventually asks. The answer is not so evident. Red-tails can be rather circumspect about the matter. They can seem to just evaporate towards dusk.

In fact, they can sleep in several kinds of perches. Out here in the Ohio countryside, on an evening when the hawks perceive that the night will be calm and rather windless, old haggards (adults) will commonly park themselves on the tops of tall utility poles and sleep the night out on this otherwise exposed perch. I have seen birds take such a perch at dusk, and saw them there the next morning at dawn.

But for years, the missing nights were a mystery. Where do the hawks sleep on windy, rainy nights, the ones where we’d like to be snuggled tightly under the covers, perhaps with our husband or wife? The answer has appeared recently by the diligent hawk watchers in Central Park following the exploits of Pale Male, the great red-tail that began the species’ urban incursion back in the 1990s. People in New York followed the bird closely, and were able to see him fly into trees and assume a night time, sleeping perch.

When they sleep, they turn their heads around and tuck them into the fluffed-up feathers of the back. I’ve quietly watched my sleeping falconry hawk with a dim flashlight. A sleeping hawk looks morbidly headless. I once had a wonderful red-tail that I took on my public lectures. She was so tame that on the way home at night she would sit on a perch I placed on the passenger seat of my car. Like a little child, the hawk would be fast asleep after driving just a mile or two at night. I’d look over there, and there she was–utterly without a head. It didn’t bother me. But when I stopped at a stop light and some trucker looked down into my car, the presentation was a bit eerie. I merely waved and moved on. That bird caused a lot of late night scratched heads.

It’s now pretty obvious that on rainy, windy, or otherwise unfavorable nights red-tails typically fly into a large hardwood tree, perch on a horizontal limb that allows the toes to wrap around the branch and grip it. But on a cold, windy, rainy, winter’s night, it would seem hard to be able to sleep in such a position. Here’s how it’s done.

Red-tails, like most other birds, have an interesting and useful foot locking mechanism used when sleeping. As the bird begins to nod off, there is a ratchet-like band of tissue that can be tightened around the inside of the leg. Once tightened, it sticks together somewhat like velcro, locking the bird’s grip on the branch. The hawk doesn't have to pay any attention to holding on during the night. The bird’s toes are physically locked around the branch, and normal winds cause no problems.

I’ve never encountered a sleeping red-tail in a gale. I think in those situations the bird must both lock its toes around the branch, and also stay awake and lean over into the wind. I don't know this, either, but I presume that the birds in these situations will attempt to park themselves in a somewhat protected position in the tree or woodlot. And this is why it would be so good to put a radio transmitter on a wild red-tail and find out just where the bird sleeps each night.

What about heavy rains? This is exactly why red-tails spend so much of their time diligently preening their feathers. As with all birds, they have the oil gland on their rump. The lean over and strop their bill on this gland, pick up some feather oil, and then preen it into all the feathers on the body. When well-preened, water runs off a hawk’s back almost as well as water off a duck’s back. Still, in the heaviest down pour, the outer feathers can get soaked. But the fluffy, inner down feathers remain oiled and water repellent. After a summer rainstorm we often seen a sodden red-tail. Underneath, though, she’s warm and dry. Red-tails, like all birds, are like turtles. They carry their houses of feathers with them wherever they go.

And except for the incubating mother, the parent hawks do not sleep in or on the nest. Hawk watchers should not regard the nest as a “home,” in any human sense. Yes, the birds stay near the nest, and often sleep within a hundred yards or so of it. But it’s not a place Mom and Pop try to go back to in any human manner. It’s important to understand that.

One other thing that was wonderfully discovered with Pale Male in NYC was that when he took his night perch, sometimes at some distance from the nest, he always seemed to maintain a straight, clear visual path to the nest. He could see the nest from where he slept. Even in thick branches there seemed to be always a clear view of the nest.

That, then, raises the question of how well the hawks can see at night. From watching my several falconry red-tails over the years, it seems pretty evident to me that they can see at night just about as well as I can. That’s not too powerful. But I have some evidence that red-tails may be able, like rattlesnakes, see a bit down into the infrared spectrum. If that’s so, a distant red-tail taking an hourly peek at its distant nest and incubating mate at night may be able to easily seen a heat-emitting, thereby infrared-glowing raccoon ascending the nest tree in search of a nighttime hawk egg snack.

For red-tails, this nighttime vision is still a bit sketchy and conjectural. That’s not the case, however, for peregrine falcons, who have remarkable nighttime vision capabilities. But that’s another (too lengthy) story to relate here.

–John Blakeman


  1. Thank you Della and John

    Recently read that the sleeping habits of birds in general has been
    unstudied( or unpublished) for various reasons which is understandable and probably
    better for their survival given the weird way so many of our own
    species chooses to approach them. Often wondered about our red
    tails after the sun went down and Ustream 's screen left me watching
    traffic signals and cars, if the haggards were there. So fascinating to know their talons can hang on while the rest of their
    neurological systems shut down. And bats do that upside down.
    I wonder if birds put their heads backwards into their neck to avoid
    waking up their eyes and ears to the elements that would cost them
    too much distraction from the sleep they need to get on with the
    next day.

  2. Thanks Della and John, very interesting info.

  3. this really help wit my 6TH grade project it was quiet interesting

  4. We live in Thornton, Colorado among many birds of prey which seem to reside in all the old cottonwoods in the neighborhood. However, now that the snow has appeared, we now have a visitor. A hawk, not redtail, but mostly brown with longer tail feathers, has decided to spend the cold nights tucked next to our front door clinging on to the rock facade of our house. We have a habit of always turning our front porch light on once the sun starts going down and I believe it gives him just a little bit more warmth. He seems to be healthly, always gone in the morning, but it is the strangest visitor we have ever had. I am now making my husband make more use of our garage then we ever have - I would hate to disrupt such an amazing creature. Your insight into hawks footing mechanisms is greatly appreciated and now answers our question on how he can hang on all night! Thanks.

  5. Why does the hawk in the top photo appear to be wearing a set of plastic antennae?

    1. That hawk is wearing a hood.

  6. I live in NYC in Chinatown and am lucky enough to have a hawk that regularly sleeps overnight in a tree just outside my 4th floor window. I swear it is no more than 15 feet away. Lucky me. I hope my neighbors don't try to eat it.

  7. I am just a beginner hawk watcher. Here in Queens, NY, have one daily that just mesmerizes me - so I am happy to learn! Thanks!

  8. It is one of the most impressive bird. They look with power and majestic. it is my favorite animal.

  9. Thank you for all that useful information. I'm sitting in my cube on the 10th floor of the library at UMass Boston looking at a yawning red-tail perched on the window ledge. A semi-frequent and much admired visitor.

    Thanks again.

  10. Is there a nest nearby? These urban hawks really seem to like the ledges of academic institutions!

  11. The other night I saw a hawk sleeping on my car, yeah in my car, but inside of it. That happens to me because I always forget to close the windows.

  12. I had a red-tailed hawk living in my yard/wetlands for the last few years...After the major "storm of the century" we encountered I have not seen him (major snow storm started 10/30)...Would the amount of snow and destruction cause him to move on or would he perhaps not have been able to survive the storm. We miss him!! (the rabbits/squirrels however do not!)

  13. Last night, in the middle of the night, there was a horrendous hail storm here. I happen to be aware of 2 hawks nests, one that I definitely saw mom or dad visiting one morning. If one of them were on the nest last night, how in the heck did it survive 15 minutes of being pummelled with mostly marble sized, but a lot of rubber Jacks ball to ping-pong ball PLUS a few hen's egg sized hail thrown in for good measure. I suspect that protecting any eggs or babies is a life-or-death situation for these beautiful birds.

  14. I live in Omaha NE and have been watching a pair of Red Tails since early spring. I was able to see their two chicks take their maiden flight. The female likes to perch on a cell tower that is about 60 feet from my 3rd floor deck always around an hour before sunset. She does this even when we have sub-zero temps. I had been wondering where she sleeps and how she does it. Glad to have more information about her!

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  16. I have a red tail sleep across the street from my house. It is at the top of a dead tree. It comes aroubd sunset and leaves around an hour before sunrise. Sleeps here almost everyday.

  17. A red tail sleeps across the street from my house atop a dead tree in the open. She comes every day around sunset and leaves about an hour before surise.

  18. What are the sleeping habits of hawks? How much sleep do they need a night?