Photos of red-shouldered hawk
May 2 update: 6:40 a.m. (w/video)

Red-shouldered story from 2004

  I wrote the following essay about the Allendale red-shouldered hawks for The Record three years ago. It gives all the essential background about the situation.

Taking wing

Endangered hawks adapt to suburbs

   FOR young couples, building a home and starting a family in Bergen County is a challenge.

    For red-shouldered hawks - once plentiful to the region - it has been next to impossible.

    The problem is simple. Breeding red-shouldered hawks have always sought remote forested wetlands, and both have become endangered species around here.

   The rule of thumb is that baby birds typically have a 30 percent chance of surviving the first year. Take away most of these hawks' habitat, as has been the case in much of North Jersey, and the odds grow much longer.

    According to Len Soucy, director of the Raptor Trust in Morris County, very few red-shouldered pairs have nested successfully in suburban habitats in New Jersey in recent years. The state Department of Environmental Protection says that such nests are anomalies.

   That explains why, for the past few springs, two red-shouldered hawks in Allendale have carried both hope and sadness on their muscular wings.

    The first two times that the two built their nest - first in the local nature refuge, then on a tree-lined street not far away - great expectations collided with stark realities.

   The two hawks were young and inexperienced, and the challenges too immense for them to hatch an egg and raise a fledgling.

   For local residents who took an interest in the hawk couple, the term "empty nest syndrome" took on a literal meeting.

   Somehow, this year was different. Swiftly and ably, the two hawks gathered sticks and built their nest 25 feet off the ground in an oak tree in the side yard of a home on Arlton Avenue, near the Ramsey border.

   Shortly after, the female and pale-chested male were soon taking turns sitting on the nest.

    On May 1, a baby hawk broke threw the shell of his egg.

   For the next several weeks, almost like clockwork, the male flew off to hunt in the wetlands of the nature refuge and returned with all sorts of goodies while Mom protected Junior.

   In the red-shouldered equivalent of a balanced diet, the male brought snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, and small birds to Mom, who tore off pieces of flesh from the prey and fed it to her voracious fledgling.

   From the day his fuzzy head popped up above the nest, Junior and his parents became a neighborhood attraction, with people walking or driving past the nest to check on their progress and to share stories about recent red-shouldered sightings.

    One neighbor told of how the male flew to his birdbath around 5 p.m. every day, took a drink, then flew up to a nearby limb to hunt for the family dinner.

   Another neighbor claimed that the male even recognized his pickup truck and would follow it up the street to his house - where the man would toss a hunk of raw steak onto the driveway. The hawk would grab it in its talons and fly away, all in one fell swoop.

    Junior, meanwhile, was growing by the day. Within a month, he looked less like a baby bird and more like a hawk. The tensest moment came on June 1, when a freak hailstorm ripped through the area with such ferocity that nests of all sorts were destroyed.

   At the refuge, a yellow warbler was found dead on her nest, killed by robin's-egg-size hailstones. But when people checked on the red-shouldered hawks' nest the next morning, there sat Junior, unhurt and unfazed.

   For Junior, the hail served as a rude welcome to the real world. For his human admirers, it served as a reminder that nature can make it exceedingly hard for birds and other creatures to survive - even without humans encroaching on their habitats.

    In the following couple of weeks, Junior started hopping out of the nest, a little higher and a little farther each day, until he took his first leap of faith from a high branch and flew to a neighboring tree.

    He is a skillful aviator now and beginning to hunt on his own, and the large hawk's nest on Arlton Avenue is deserted.

    Chances are that the red-shouldered hawks will fly south in October, then return to the same neighborhood next spring.

    In the meantime, that clump of sticks and twigs that served as their makeshift nursery is a symbol of nature's remarkable ability to rebound, if given half a chance.

   In Ohio and other parts of the nation, red-shouldered hawks are nesting nearer and nearer to humans.

   There's no reason that can't happen here as well, if we don't take away much more of their breathing room.