Birds and Beyond

By Claire Curry | Published Thursday, February 11, 2010

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It seems a little early for birds to be nesting, doesn’t it? We just had a big snowstorm last month and it’s still rather cold most days. While most of our birds are not nesting yet, a few are getting started.

Some resident songbirds, like cardinals, titmice and chickadees, are starting to sing, but it is the hawks and owls that are nesting. Despite their similar appearance with sharp, hooked beaks and claws, they are not closely related. They merely use similar niches, with hawks hunting during the day and owls at night.

Red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks begin nesting in late January to mid February. They begin by carrying sticks to their nests, often repairing nests from previous years. This building or repair work can take weeks to months.

Our common Red-tailed Hawk usually places its nest in a tall tree, although in some regions it will nest on cliff faces. red-shouldered hawks also nest in tall trees, but their nests are often in more wooded areas.

The familiar scream of a red-tailed hawk is usually only used in the breeding season for communicating within the pair and as a territorial call. It is also used in place of the bald eagle’s calls in TVs and movies, much to the annoyance of bird-watchers everywhere. (The bald eagle’s actual squeaking calls are not so fearsome.)

Red-shouldered hawks have a “keeeeeeyurrrr” call that is not as harsh as a red-tailed’s call. Blue jays often imitate it almost perfectly, so always look for the source.

Both red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks typically lay two to three eggs, which the female incubates for three to four weeks. The male may help incubate, but mostly brings food. After another month and a half, the young can leave the nest. They often start by clambering out on nearby branches and will flap their wings a lot before actually flying. It takes several weeks for them to learn to hunt on their own.

Our two common large owls, barred and great horned, begin nesting before hawks (I heard great horned hooting back in December) and will take up residence in old hawk nests. They will also use natural cavities in trees and rocky ledges. They rarely nest on the ground.

Like our hawks, they typically lay two to three eggs and incubate them for about four weeks. The adorably fuzzy young owls will often leave the nest at 4 to 6 weeks old, but they can’t fly yet. Even once they can fly, though, you will still hear their hungry screams echoing through the woods as they beg for dinner for months afterwards.

In both hawks and owls, the female begins incubating the eggs as soon as the first one is laid. This means the young hatch in a series. Older siblings often get fed first, and if food is scarce, the larger older siblings will eat the younger ones.

This seems a bit harsh to humans, but it gets the older offspring a meal and eliminates their competition for any more food that mom or dad might bring in.

Another interesting thing about some raptors is that females are larger than males in many species. This can allow males and females to take different-sized prey and thus use two different resources.

If you see a pair together, you can distinguish the male and the female by their sizes. If they have different plumage patterns, as Red-taileds often do (for example, one may have a dark throat and the other may have a light throat, or one will have a belly band), you can then identify your territory’s male and female when they are apart.

Do be cautious if you find a hawk or owl nest that you wish to observe. Many are very easily spooked by a lot of activity and may abandon their nest site. They also have the capability to seriously injure a person who wanders too close to their nest – raptor researchers often wear helmets.

Keep a sharp lookout for our magnificent birds of prey. You might see them carrying sticks to their nest or catching rats for their mates. In a few months they may take a dangling snake home to the young’uns. But for now, they’re bringing in spring with their nesting activities, even if it is only February. At any time of the year, you never know what wonders you will spy.

The next monthly field trip on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands is March 3. We will depart at 9 a.m. from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For information, contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service at (940) 627-5475.

Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. E-mail them at

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