Red-tailed hawks are 'Rhapsody in Blue'

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By Sylvia Brockner

Ames Rau called us last Sunday to say that he had been down at Bear Creek Lake Park, where he had witnessed a red-tailed hawk refurbishing its nest. It may seem odd that any birds are preparing to nest when we are experiencing well below freezing temperatures and several inches of snow cover the ground, but it is a common practice for the large resident hawks and owls to do so.

Red-tailed hawks apparently mate for life. They do so unless one of the two dies, in which case the remaining bird will find a new mate. This far south in their range, many of them barely leave their nesting area in the winter but red-tails from farther north pass through on their migration. Therefore, as the days begin to lengthen, the local red-tails will begin to look over their old nest site, decide whether or not to reuse it or find a new site or add a stick or place a fresh evergreen twig on the old nest. All of this is sporadic at first with activity on spring days and then little or no activity when the weather reverts to winter.

Nesting for red-tailed hawks is a long process. The work on the nest and decorating with evergreen twigs may simply say, “this nest is taken” to other red-tails or it may take longer warmer days before they are inspired to complete the next. This is followed by considerable time spent in courtship, which consists of pairs flying together in concentric circles, often touching feet in flight. The male may present his lady with branches for the nest and freshly caught prey but females appear to do most of the arranging of sticks in the nest. They may use their old nest, start a completely new nest or use an old nest of a magpie or squirrel as a base for their new structure. When the nest building and courtship are over, (a month or more), they finally mate. Eggs are laid and incubated for about another month, then the young are in the nest for a month or more before they fledge. After which, the young stay with or near the adults for another month or so while they learn how to hunt for mice, snakes and ground squirrels, which are their favorite prey.

Thus, with four or five months required to complete the nesting cycle, it is not surprising that they start early. However, our local birds are a good month later than those that nest on the plains. While red-tails can be found working on nests at Bear Creek Lake Park or at Chatfield State Park in February, they seldom start here in the foothills before March. Red-tails have nested for many years in Elk Meadow Park. Last year a pair was seen regularly at Evergreen Lake, although no one was able to find their nest. The male was frequently seen perched in the dead pine stub where Meadow Drive meets the Douglas Park Road. This grand perch gave him a good view of the meadow and down onto the lake, wetlands, golf course and Dedisse Park. No doubt the nest was not too far away along the wooded ridge.

March is usually the peak of their courtship in the foothills. Watch for them circling over any opening in the forest. Elk Meadow is one of their favorite places. They play on the March winds like a kite without a string. Rising into the blue Colorado sky until they are mere specks, the pair will suddenly plummet downward until they abruptly pull out only a hundred feet or so above the meadow. Then soaring in lazy concentric circles, they will climb to repeat this performance again and again. They are indeed a “Rhapsody in Blue,” courting, enjoying the spring weather and playing on the wind. After a time they tire of the game, they will then often perch on a dead tree or utility pole and go back to the more serious business of hunting for ground squirrels, mice and snakes on the meadow.

Don’t worry too much about identification. If, (seen from below), they have a red tail, they are a red-tailed hawk. But there are many color morphs in this bird as well as eastern and western variations. Sibley shows most of them in his bird guide as well as some of the immature plumage, which can be very confusing as they have a banded tail when young. Just enjoy their spring flights of fancy.