Any time I wanted to see a red-tailed hawk family this spring and summer, I just walked two blocks from my house and stopped at a front yard with a big maple on one side and a large white pine on the other. And then I’d look up, because for the second year in a row a handsome pair of hawks raised two youngsters in a nest in that big pine, right here in a St. Paul residential neighborhood.

The hawks didn’t seem bothered by cars passing beneath their nest, or people and dogs walking along the sidewalk — even the occasional noisy fire truck or ambulance racing by didn’t disturb them. Their composure was similar to that of bald eagle pairs that have nested in Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods these past several years.

The local neighborhood didn’t need a web camera to track the action near the top of the pine. Nearly every time I stopped by there was something visibly going on, from parent birds bringing in a meal to young hawks flapping their wings on the edge of the nest, building up flight muscles for their first, short flights. As the season advanced and the hawklets left the nest, it grew more challenging to locate them.

Songbird posse

This is where the neighborhood songbirds came in handy: They didn’t like having such large predators nesting in their territories and made their views known. If a young hawk was hiding in a nearby tree, the robins gathered and made their distressed “chink-chink-chink” calls to try to drive him or her away or at least point out its location to other small birds. Blue jays would show up to make a ruckus, “jeer”-ing and jumping from branch to branch to show they were on the case.

This kind of songbird posse would frequently result in the young hawk making piteous cries before returning to perch on the nest, their safe haven. Even here, intrepid cardinals would sometimes dive bomb them, clearly sending the message that the hawks should leave songbirds alone. If the mobbing became too intense, a parent red tail would circle overhead, giving that familiar hunting call, to draw the harassing birds away, a tactic that worked well.

Not so rare

Just how unusual was this neighborhood nesting behavior for red-tailed hawks?

“As a species, red-tailed hawks have adapted well to a human-altered landscape,” says Julia Ponder, executive director of the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. “They frequently nest in areas close to human activity.”

When I asked where they’re finding food, Ponder speculated that they might be hunting for voles, mice and rabbits in nearby Como Park.

The red tail adults will continue to feed the young hawks until the end of summer, by which time the youngsters will have learned the skills they need to become independent of their parents.

I’ll miss them when they go, but there’s always hope that they will settle into our neighborhood again next year at nesting time. And keep your eyes on tall trees around where you live next spring — you just might spot a pair of hawks in the ’hood, too.

 

St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at valwrites@comcast.net.