I was proven correct on Feb. 15. I’d returned home from work in time to enjoy the last of a sunny day. I’d no sooner stepped from my car when I heard the screams of a red-shouldered hawk from a nearby ridge.
The red-shouldered hawks are, to make a point on the punctuality of birds, right on time. They usually return in late January or early February to the woodlands around my home.
My recent sighting, however, involved more than a single hawk. I detected at least two hawks, seemingly screaming at each other. Curious, I searched for them and found them soaring overhead as the sunny day had generated warm, rising thermals of air.
To my surprise, I soon had a small kettle of red-shouldered hawks calling, soaring and swooping at each other. Two hawks rose to three, then five and finally six! I’d never observed so many red-shouldered hawks in one spot.
I shared the remarkable observation on Facebook and pondered if fellow birder Tom McNeil had seen or heard any of these noisy hawks on his side of the ridge.
After all, the hawks were soaring rather high by the time they flew out of sight and could easily have been seen in Piney Grove as they rose above the ridge separating the community from Simerly Creek Road.
Tom later responded with some interesting information. “Last year a pair nested in the pines across the road,” he wrote. “They were insanely noisy through the early spring.”
He noted, however, that his high count has been four individuals, not six.
Another Facebook friend, Kris Hawkins Rosalina, also shared sightings of this hawk.
“I saw two on Sunday morning, and we’re probably a mile from you as the crow flies on Brown Branch Road,” Kris wrote.
Michael Briggs, who resides in Erwin, also shared about his own pair of hawks. “I’ve had one, maybe two, living near my house for some time now,” he said.
Michael also noted that he had heard one the same day I made my post about the six hawks at my home.
Although at least two of the hawks I observed seemed engaged in an aerial duel, constantly folding their wings, diving and swooping at each other, I think it was mostly bluster and bluff on their part.
Red-shouldered hawks appear animated by a feisty spirit and, as Tom pointed out in his Facebook remarks, are on occasion “insanely noisy” raptors.
The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.
The red-shouldered hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.
The red-shouldered hawk belongs to a genus of raptors known as Buteo hawks.The red-tailed hawk is the largest and most common buteo hawk found in the region. The genus includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.
Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the white-throated hawk, gray-lined hawk, zone-tailed hawk and short-tailed hawk.
Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.” When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.
All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.
The red-shoulder hawk preys on many of the small mammals, such as chipmunks or voles, as well as reptiles, amphibians and crustaceans. This hawk will also occasionally prey on smaller birds, such as doves, starlings or sparrows.
The overall population trend for this hawk species appear to be on the increase throughout the United States. I see them more frequently these days compared to when I first began birding in the early 1990s.