Great views and easy pickings make city life second nature for hawks

Great views, easy pickings

Staff WriterJuly 7, 2011 

  • Red-tails are the most common variety in North America, found from Alaska to Central America. They prefer to nest in open areas with a high point for easy hunting, often choosing deserts or fields. But they are highly adaptable and sometimes choose human habitats.

— They swoop down from eight-story rooftops, grabbing squirrels off the Capitol lawn, startling lawyers and baristas with a flurry of speckled feathers.

Three species of raptor now thrive on the densest, tallest, most traffic-choked blocks of downtown Raleigh, stalking rodents, birds and bugs in an urban version of Wild Kingdom.

The most successful of these urban birds of prey, red-tailed hawks, can be spotted looming down from three or four of the city's highest rooftops nearly every afternoon.

This spring, a family successfully nested on the steeple of First Baptist Church, raising three chicks while thousands of pedestrians watched from Salisbury Street below.

"We certainly celebrate creation," said Lin Carter, minister of Christian Education and Outreach, "so we were excited.

"One morning, I could almost reach out and touch it."

The permanent presence of 2-foot meat-eating birds in Raleigh's core shows that these hawks are adaptable predators, taking rabbits and squirrels without fear of humans, said John Gerwin, curator of birds at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

They've been downtown for 10 or 15 years now, and have managed to build their nests and raise their chicks without interference from the near-constant construction.

"Red-tails are a great ambassador that way," Gerwin said. "They're OK as long as we're OK watching them eat a squirrel in front of us."

You can also find other kinds of raptors - American kestrels and Cooper's hawks, for instance - downtown, he added. But in the case of kestrels, you'll find fewer hidden inside the cavities of old buildings.

It's rare but not unheard-of to find a hawk among skyscrapers, said Michele Houck, vice president for external affairs at the Carolina Raptor Center.

Hawks like an open field to scan for prey, and from the vantage point of a tall rooftop, they can see a whole maze of sidewalks and city parks full of squirrels and the occasional rat.

Short of a rooster killed in Cary in 2009, there's no record of a hawk attacking anyone or pets. They're only interested in beasts that can't fight back, Houck said.

"I would not tell you 100 percent that a red-tailed hawk wouldn't go after a very, very small dog," Houck said. "But that, again, is not likely. A dog is going to bite back, and they know it."

In New York, a red-tail nicknamed Pale Male became a cause célèbre when he nested in a building on Fifth Avenue across from Central Park. Likewise, in downtown Raleigh, hawk-watching is a growing sport for the strong of stomach.

"I saw one catch the squirrel and fly off somewhere, and when it came back, it perched like three feet from my window and started eating it." said downtown attorney Everette Winslow. "It was just picking at it, and there were entrails. It was disgusting."

When Winslow walks his Maltese, Max, he keeps an eye to the sky.

Some of the downtown raptors, especially the Cooper's hawks, will feed on pigeons, which some may consider a plus.

Birds' nests are definitely unsafe on Fayetteville Street, where developer Greg Hatem witnesses hawk mayhem from his window.

He recounted this drama:

"They're everywhere. They actually got into another bird's nest, and the sparrows are all trying to get them out, and the next thing you know the nest is on the ground."

Gerwin, at the museum, regrets he didn't get the chance to make more of the downtown hawk's nest.

If they rebuild next year, he vows to set up viewing tables, offering binoculars for viewing raw nature surrounded by concrete.

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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