Monday, April 9, 2012

Incubation continues....

Following the conjecture over whether there would be a fourth egg (there wasn't!) the hawks have now settled into incubating their three eggs. 

      Kay Meng

Both parents take on this duty, and one of the great joys in observing these two experienced hawks - with three successful nesting seasons behind them - is to watch their smooth teamwork as as they change shifts.

As soon as the tiercel lands and moves toward the eggs, the formel stands up and heads out for a welcome break from the nest.

Kay Meng

Unlike many bird species, the red-tail male plays a huge role in incubating the eggs.  The Franklin Institute tiercel probably should win Dad of the Year for his enthusiasm that borders almost on insubordination at times!  When the formel returns, dad is often most reluctant to get up off the eggs, and she will glare down at him, and practically have to step on him before he will get up.

      Kay Meng

Eventually of course, he always allows her back on the eggs, and then heads out into his city hunting grounds.

Kay Meng

Here is the information that John Blakeman has shared with us for the past two years on the amazing process of incubation:

"The laying of the third egg initiated sincere, authentic developmental incubation. Until then, the formel had been sitting loosely on the eggs. She was merely keeping them slightly warm, not the prolonged and enduring 100 degrees F (or so) temperature needed for incubation.

Until the appearance of the third egg, sitting had been merely maintenance. The embryo of the first egg was not developed much, if at all. A fertile egg kept at the start between 40, 50, or 60 degrees or so simply just sits there, viable and alive, but with no growth of the organism inside.

At this point the baby hawk, which is called an eyass (EYE-ass) not a "chick" by those who know raptors, is only a mass of undifferentiated cells in the blastodisc on the surface of the yolk.

With proper incubation now beginning at consistent warm egg temperatures, the blastodisc cells will begin to grow, using the lipids in the yolk for energy, and the proteins and minerals in the egg white as building materials for the new tissues and organs.

The egg, or at least the developing embryo, will now start to metabolize, to take in and use oxygen and give off and expel carbon dioxide. Of course, the egg and developing embryo have no functioning lungs or other structures to accomplish these gas exchange processes. Oxygen goes in and carbon dioxide comes out of the egg through the shell, which on a microscopic level is rather porous.

In the next 28 days or so the egg will actually lose weight, as water evaporates out through the shell. The rate of this water loss is important and can signal the rate of development of the embryo and eyass inside. Rapid loss of water will kill the egg, and no loss of water would indicate that the embryo is already dead. The moist skin of the formel’s brood patch (bare skin on her lower chest/belly area) will help to control the moisture in the egg.

But these should not be concerns. This is an experienced, successful pair of red-tailed hawks who have incubated, fed, and fledged three eyasses each year. They’ve done this before and know what to do, so we needn’t be concerned.

Here are some things to look for, and one thing not to be concerned about.

First, only the formel has a distinct, naked brood patch under her chest and belly feathers.

      Kay Meng

The tiercel retains his downy feathers, so when he sits to incubate during the times the formel gets up, stretches, preens, defecates, and otherwise attends to herself, the eggs cannot be kept quite as warm as when they are in direct contact with the formel’s naked brood patch skin. This is one reason the formel does most (but not all) of the incubation. She’s just much better equipped, both physically and mentally, for this important job.

And to do that, watch now how she settles on the eggs. Until the third egg was laid, she and her tiercel just sort of plopped down gently on the eggs. Now, she is much more diligent in settling upon them. She will sink a bit more slowly, and will often gently rock back and forth to position the eggs right up against her brood patch.

I have to think that this is a profoundly satisfying and rewarding feeling for the mother, to have those eggs right against her body. After she’s been away and resumes incubation from her colder mate, I’m sure she feels the slightly cooler egg temperatures. It must be gratifying for her to get them all cozy once again.

And that’s the second thing observers will note. From time to time, the eggs will be left unattended out in the cold air, often for 10 to 20 minutes or more. We’ve seen this already, many times. But true incubation hadn’t started yet, so there was no problem. Now, with development of the embryo in the blastodisc, an overly long period of cooler temperatures will kill the eyass.

All of us who have watched red-tail nests have been really anxious about these long, egg-cooling intervals. But in virtually every case, except with first-year or inexperienced adults who do often fail to keep the eggs warm enough, experienced adults like these know just when to get back on the cooling eggs and resume real incubation.

Why, then, do the parents allow these unattended, periodic cooling periods? We don’t know. I speculate that it may have something to do with oxygen diffusion and absorption into the liquid tissues of the egg and embryo. As you might have recalled from high school chemistry, the warmer a liquid is, the less gas remains dissolved in it. You didn’t drink that warmed-up soda after the carbon dioxide diffused away from it as the soda got too warm.

So, it’s possible that once a day or so the parents allow the egg to cool a few degrees for 10 or 20 minutes, allowing more oxygen to diffuse through the shell and become dissolved in the egg fluids. A breath of fresh air, as it were, for the developing eyasses.

Or, perhaps it just doesn’t make any difference with the oxygen, and the egg grows well enough with these periodic uncovered periods.

Either way, don’t be concerned until the egg remains uncovered for 45 to 60 minutes or so."

--John Blakeman

*               *               *               *               *               *               *

The formel sleeps on the nest keeping the eggs warm during the cooler night hours.  As best we know, the tiercel roosts in a nearby tree.  This past Saturday before sunrise, early hawkwatcher Carolyn Sutton discovered dad at 5:00 AM on the edge of the nest, as mom drowsed on the eggs.  How long had he been there?  Was he itching to get started with his first session of the day on his eggs?

Hatch watch will start soon, and it will be interesting to see if this year's mild winter will make for a shorter incubation.  The winters of the past two years (2011 and 2010) were extremely severe in Philadelphia, and in both those years there were 33 days of incubation before the first eyass hatched.  In 2009, there was a milder winter, and incubation lasted 28 days.  If that holds true for this year as well, then we might see the first egg hatch around April 16. 

Not long to wait.....


  1. When I tuned in at 5, Dad was "on board." Although very dark, I could see he had his head tucked into his shoulder feathers....sleeping! Carditoo

  2. Great recap, Della! I love pictures taken from inside the FI - thanks, Kay. Mom looks like she's trying mental telepathy on Dad in wanting her turn on the eggs. She has some ferocious look!

  3. Ferocious is the exact description of that face of hers! Nothing motherly there - yet, she is the tenderest of parents caring for those little fluff balls.

  4. Excellent write-up! For the benefit of my three younger GRAND grandaughters . . . and me, too, could you post a R-tH glossary, not in the main text where it will just aggravate the experienced R-tH watchers, but on a side link?

    In any case, thanks for what you are doing so well!

    - Mike, aka Mike762 elsewhere

  5. That's a great idea, Mike. While I'm figuring out how to do that, check out the search feature -- scroll down the right side, and you should find a search box. If you type in the term you're looking for, it'll bring up the posts where maybe it is defined.

  6. Is this theme connected with your working position or perhaps is it mostly about your leisure and kinds of spending your free time?