• Donald Attwood

Family dramas


Red-shouldered hawks are large soaring birds but even after the young hawks leave the nest, they still need help from their parents while learning to hunt.

The biggest family drama this summer came at the end of July. Walking east along the Taylor-Bradbury trail in Hudson, I heard a Red-shouldered hawk calling in the distance. It flew toward the trail, still calling, and landed on a dead tree by a small pond, silhouetted against the sky. And it went on calling. It had the mottled brown plumage of a young bird. (These are big birds, around 50 cm for males and 55 cm for females, beak to tail.) The persistent calling – a dozen loud cries, pause, then repeat – suggested it was a fledgling calling its parents. This went on for more than 20 minutes.

Rough translation: “Feed me, feed me.”

Occasional reply from a moderate distance: “Feed yourself, I’m busy.” And aside: “Will that kid ever grow up?”

Red-shouldered hawks often hunt from a perch at the edge of a wood, especially when there’s water nearby. They catch mice, frogs, snakes, and lizards. More often heard than seen, their distinctive call is a series of loud “kya-kya-kyas.” (For some reason, Blue jays like to imitate this call, and it’s not always easy to tell who’s who.)

These hawks hatch in May or early June. As nestlings, Red-shouldered hawks are completely dependent on their parents for food, warmth, and protection. In six weeks or so, they grow at a phenomenal rate from downy chicks to adult size, then they must learn to fly and hunt for themselves. This is their adolescent phase. The young hawk in the dead tree was not an experienced hunter, so it was hungry.

Finding and catching live prey involves a lot of learning by trial and error, so experience counts. And flying is hard work, using lots of energy – that’s why birds must eat often. In one study, two Red-shouldered hawks ate an average of 11per cent of their bodyweight per day in spring and summer. For an average adult person in North America, that would be equivalent to eating nearly nine kilos of meat per day. You couldn’t do it.

The energy economy of hunting on the wing teeters on a narrow edge. A lengthy period of trial and error would be risky as prolonged hunger would impair your ability to hunt. Additional help from parents is required at first. For Red-shouldered hawks, this period of supplemental feeding lasts eight to 10 weeks after fledging. As time goes on, the parents provide fewer meals so the youngster gets hungry and complains to the skies. That’s the drama I saw. Eventually, of course, the young hawk learns to get enough food for itself. With hawks, adolescent dramas last weeks, not years.

Other bird species go through similar phases, though smaller ones do it more rapidly. In July, one sees various birds feeding their recently fledged youngsters and showing them how to find food – meaning chiefly insects which the chicks must learn to hunt. In Jack Layton Park I saw a trio of chickadees with one feeding tiny bugs to another. I’ve seen grackles and waxwings feeding their fully grown young and friends have reported cardinals, robins, and various others doing likewise. (Food offerings also occur during spring, when males are courting their partners, but in high summer, food is offered only to youngsters.)

In July, young Downy woodpeckers brought their giddy curiosity to our backyard feeders. Having hatched about three weeks earlier, they were then stuffed with insects while they grew to adult size. Once they learned to fly, they began showing up with their parents to eat peanuts. They were the same size, with the same markings, as the grownups, but they acted like kids.

For one thing, they needed to learn about human intrusions. Windows are a problem – last year one flew into our kitchen window, collapsed and died. That led me to search out ultraviolet-reflecting decals which I put on our windows to ward off collisions.

More amusingly, young Downies waiting for room at the peanut feeder try to perch on the metal poles supporting the feeders – as if the poles were saplings. Their claws don’t grip well on metal, and they slowly start sliding down. At other times, they’ve tried perching on the squirrel baffles, which wobble, causing them to slide off. Best of all is when they follow the example of other small birds and perch on the clothesline, a thin steel cable wrapped in plastic. This clothesline is too smooth for them, and the young Downies slowly rotate until they’re hanging upside down.

They're teens and they seem to be having fun.

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