Red-tailed hawks seem to be everywhere I walk these January days.
We tend to think of winter as a quiet, even a quiescent, time for the natural world.
And so it is for many plants and animals. But for others, including NYC’s Red-tailed hawks, mid-winter actually signals the start of breeding season. In the coming weeks, our local hawks will go a-courting. After all, for us to watch eggs hatch in early spring on NYU’s Bobst Library or a Fifth Avenue apartment ledge, the hawks have to lay those eggs a full month earlier, sometimes as early as late February or early March. Before laying eggs, new pairs need time to build a nest, while established pairs must renovate the old nest. And before they start working on the nest, the hawks have to pair up, bond, and mate.
Red-tails mate for life, but even experienced and bonded pairs engage in elaborate courtship behavior each year as they enter the breeding season. Red-tail courtship often involves dazzling paired flights, when the two birds swoop and circle together, and sometimes grasp each other’s talons as they spiral down through the air, separating in time to spread their wings and soar again.
In late winter and, indeed, throughout the breeding season, unpaired hawks, whether juveniles or adults that have lost a mate, will be on the look-out for potential partners. In NYC over the past few years, several hawks have died from rat poison at various points in the breeding season, and we’ve seen the remarkable swiftness with which a new hawk appears and mating begins again.
So look up as you walk in the city this winter. Scan trees, building ledges, statues, and water towers for unusual lumps and bumps that may turn out, on closer inspection, to be a hawk perching and watching for prey. And if you are lucky enough to spot two broad-winged birds soaring high in the sky, circling and swooping, spiraling and climbing, they may well be a pair of red-tails declaring their devotion and preparing to mate.