Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Sex, Hawks and Rock & Roll!

Yesterday evening, at 7:53 PM, hawkaholics everywhere were riveted by this post from Weaselm on the Ustream chat line:

"Hey Everyone - Big exciting news! A friend, biking home
from work at around 5:30 PM, heard a hawk call, looked up and saw two red-tails on the corner of the FI and they started mating!!"

Immediately, the questions - discreet and otherwise - started flying, and roughly in these categories: how, where, when and how often.

So, as always in times of hawk ignorance, I turned to John Blakeman for his wisdom about the sex lives of hawks.

John writes, "It was pleasing to learn that the haggards were 'mating.' But that's not so, in a proper way. The two haggards -- properly -- mated when they came together, started to defend their territory, and began building a nest last year. They mated last December or January (or before). Mating is the social process where two birds decide to share a territory and cooperate in defending that territory, and then build a nest and attempt to produce offspring. Mating is a long-term social process, similar to 'marriage.'

None of this should be confused with what is properly called copulation, sexual transfer of sperm from the tiercel to the cloaca (genital opening) of the formel. Just as human marriage is seldom confused with human sex, hawk mating should not be confused or confined only to copulation.

Frankly, red-tails copulate frequently, many times a day. Copulation is quick, usually about seven seconds.

And copulation is often (but not always) preceded by a series of stupendous dives by the tiercel from a good height down to the circling formel below. Hawkwatchers at this time of the year should be looking above for the haggards soaring in circles. The first amorous signal is the dangling of legs while soaring. This is profoundly sexual.

Then, the tiercel soars to a good height and folds his wings and plunges at well over 100 mph straight at his aroused formel below. Just as he's about to strike her on his rapid plunge (properly called a 'stoop'), the formel turns her wings sideways and allows the tiercel to shoot through her immediate airspace without hitting her.

After dropping beneath the formel, the tiercel throws out his wings and the large G-forces divert his momentum back into the sky. This giant aerial U-shaped flight is one of the most exciting of any bird, matching the lethal prey-killing stoop of a peregrine falcon.
But red-tail love stoops often happen without anyone taking note. Too often, we look for red-tails on buildings in urban areas, and on trees and poles in rural areas. Of course, that's where they spend their time most of the year. But in January, February, and March, we need also to look up into the sky for them.

After the love stoop, the formel then lands on a tall limb or building edge. She leans over in a low horizontal posture, whereupon the tiercel gently lands on her back and grips her between his feet. He wraps his tail back under and around the formel's diverted tail, thereby aligning his cloaca with hers. And in a few seconds, sperm is transferred.

He jumps down off his mate, and both birds often 'rouse,' shaking and rearranging their feathers. Hawks rouse only when they feel good - and after sex, they do, and they commonly rouse.

So, from now on, when the Franklin Institute red-tails are seen to be 'mating,' they aren't. That happened last year, and the birds have been mated since then. But now, in the breeding season, they are copulating many times a day.

For our tiercel and formel, life is good.

Eggs should be forthcoming any time from the second through the third week in March. It could be earlier, or later, but the middle two weeks in March are typical for red-tails at the southern Pennsylvania latitude. In my area, here in northern Ohio near Lake Erie, our birds are about a week later; but they, too, can vary by a week or two.

So, I've suggested the use of three new terms. The birds 'rouse' (pronounced ROUW-ze, rhyming with 'arouse') when they shake their feathers and rearrange them. When they 'mate,' they are really copulating - conducting outright and purely visible and profligate sex. In Philadelphia, no less.

And when the tiercel folds his wings and plunges at great speed toward his formel, or sometimes just when she's sitting, he's performed a stoop, a stunning aerial plunge. Because it's such fun, formels will also tip over and do a stoop, too.

Nothing like it in all the world." -- John A. Blakeman

(Note to self: Think I might like to come back as a hawk....!)


  1. Priceless, as always- was wondering how long it would take you to let John know the big news! I'd put this blog in the "way too much information" category- that said, let's hope Kay can capture some of the action! Get those videocams ready!

    BTW- check out the owl cam if you want to see some real action! I never knew owls had so much fun (well, at least the male seems to- the female is busy sitting on eggs!)

    thanks Della


  2. Thank you John Blakeman for helping us understand what we're seeing with the hawks. Your tutorials are invaluable and have deepened my appreciation and understanding of this whole journey. It has been so enriching. Thank you for being so generous with your knowledge!

  3. so that's where "mates for life" comes from. makes much more sense. Now understand why I didn't get married until rousing and stooping
    with others was no longer a threat to the nest. I must have been a hawk.