Red-Tailed Hawk (Case History #1)

Brancher cared for at substitute nest in tree adjacent to active nest containing sibling

A young brancher Red-tailed Hawk was found on the ground on the Birmingham Country Club Golf Course in Mountain Brook, a suburb of Birmingham. The bird was healthy, but could not be returned to the nest, which was clearly visible in the top of a very tall pine tree.   Another nestling Red-tailed Hawk habitat at Birmingham Country Club could be seen in the nest.  The young hawk’s behavioral development was assessed in a flight cage by placing the bird in an open nest basket about 5 feet above the ground.  The bird immediately left the nest basket and attempted to conceal itself on the ground in some thick shrubbery immediately below the nest.   Since the bird made no attempt to move to higher perches, I concluded that it was almost of the age to become a brancher, but that it was too young to perch and move around independently.  Its instincts most urgently demanded concealment, although it no longer needed the support of the nest.  We prepared a small (3×3) platform with a layer of interwoven twigs to provide a secure perch.  Around the edge I fastened large branches of holly which provided dense cover on all sides to a height of about 12 to 18 inches.  The platform was installed about 10 feet above the ground, on a low branch of a dogwood tree in a thicket immediately adjacent to the pine tree in which the original nest was located.  When the young hawk was placed on the platform, it immediately crouched down behind the screen of holly.  Apparently the extra cover satisfied the bird’s need for concealment. The bird remained on the platform until it fledged about two weeks later.  Since the trees were on the edge of the open golf course, observation of both nests was easy.  This happened long before I started using recorded calls, but fortunately, with the other nestling so close by, the adults immediately located their lost brancher,  and it was soon apparent that the parents were willing to feed at both nest sites, until both juveniles fledged, at about the same time.

This is an example of the importance of a “dress rehearsal” for older nestlings, branchers and fledglings.  If I had not had a chance to observe the young hawk’s “hiding behavior” in a flight cage, I would never have realized how important it was to add cover around the edges of his platform, and the bird would probably have gone back to the ground to hide.

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