Recently, I was crossing over the fields to the Marine Park Salt Marsh Nature Center when I noticed a large, beautiful female red-tailed hawk flying oddly low in the sky. At breakneck speeds, she circled tightly around the perimeter, her talons poised and ready to make a kill. Below, a chihuahua, off a leash and unsupervised, sat dumbly and quietly.
Knowing the repercussions it could have for the appearance of wild life in NYC, I quickly shouted, not in effort to scare the hawk but in hope to scare the dog. The hawk missed the dog by inches as his scared owned came running and screaming over. The hawk circled the park once more, but knew it lost its chance—this time.
To the surprise of many Brooklynites, our skies are patrolled by the likes of several large, predatory birds. While most of these birds would rather the odd rat or pigeon, the most common and one of the largest, the redtailed hawk, will readily take a small dog given the opportunity.
Redtailed hawks, now in strong numbers over Brooklyn, will soar over open parks in search of prey. It’s important to realize that a hawk does not know that your chihuahua is any less a viable food source than a squirrel! Hawks, unlike our domesticated dogs, are voracious predators.
Like many a New Yorker, the Red-Tailed Hawk has struggled against adversity and illness, and was once quite rare due to widespread usage of the pesticide DDT. However, the species has made a recovery and now patrols the skies almost everywhere in the city, but has a special affinity for southern Brooklyn where there are many nesting locations.
A New York Job
About twenty-five years ago, a red-tailed Hawk named Pale Male (named for being a bit paler than the average red-tailed hawk) bred with a mate on the Upper East Side and was the first of his kind to be observed nesting on a building. Pale Male has become something of a hawk celebrity and is probably the single most studied red-tailed Hawk in history. Pale Male continues to thrive on the Upper East Side and has fathered many children, some of which surely helped increase the population of red-tailed hawks all over the city. A major benefit to the tracking of Pale Male has been the increased public attention to red-tailed hawks and the vital role they play in New York City’s ecology.
Red-tailed hawks are apex predators. Meaning that they are at the top of the food chain in the environment they live. Red-tailed hawks help maintain a healthy and orderly population of pigeons, squirrels and other rodents by routinely hunting out the elderly and sick. This process is what sustains the delicate and essential balance of ecosystems all over the world. Prior to the resurgence of the red-tailed hawk, it was more common to see sick and dying squirrels and pigeons due to an unnatural ecosystem where only prey species thrive.
Where Can You See Them?
Red-Tailed Hawks are now the most numerous bird of prey in the country, particularly in New York. These large predatory birds are best seen over parks, where they patrol for squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and pigeons. Perhaps the best place to see red-tailed hawks in the Sheesphead Bay is over the Salt Marsh Nature Center, particularly over the central grassy dome where you’ll often see them pass in wide, confident loops, plotting their next kill.
Another great way to spot red-tailed hawks is to follow the crows. Crows, along with many species of birds, exhibit a behavior called “mobbing,” where they will actively pursue and chase away a predator by screaming, body slamming and even pooping on them. If you’re near the salt marsh and you hear a large ruckus of crows, there’s a very good chance a red-tailed hawk is around.
For at least four years now, locals have witnessed eyasses (baby hawks) in a nearby oak tree by St. Marks Roman Catholic Church on East 19th Street and Jerome Avenue. While there are no eyasses this time of the year (Hawks primarily nest in late winter into mid-spring) the parents stay put and can often be seen perching from the church’s spires.
Finally, another excellent place to see red-tailed hawks in action (along with many other bird species) is Floyd Bennet Field. Floyd Bennet Field’s hawks are best viewed by taking a casual walk along the huge, open runways, where you’re sure to see a hawk crawling across the sky. Due to the close proximity of the Salt Marsh Nature Center to Floyd Bennet Field, it’s likely that many of the hawks seen over Marine Park are originating at Floyd Bennet and likely roost there at night.
What’s in a Hawk?
“Eyes like a hawk” is a common and quite apt description for one who sees every detail. Red-tailed hawks, along with most birds of prey, have astounding visual acuity. In simple, non-technical terms, a red-tailed hawk is able to focus on an object with many times the acuity of a human from great distances. They have the ability to essentially “zoom” in on an object of interest.
Outside of visual acuity, red-tailed hawks are equipped with powerful feet with sharp talons that cut into and crush their prey. Each talon is roughly an inch and a half long and made from the same material as our own fingernails. However, the talon is very dense and shaped to re-sharpen itself when naturally rubbed against perches.
While red-tailed hawks can move quite fast, diving at approximately 120 miles per hour, they’re by no means the fastest bird of prey and instead rely on their bulk, persistence and wingspan to capture prey or scare off competition. You’ll notice that most of the time, red-tailed hawks are flying quite slow and prefer to loll about the sky using thermal currents to stay aloft.
Red-Tailed Hawks In History
The Red-tailed hawk, along with many birds of prey, are lauded as sacred beings to many Native American tribes. The Red-tailed hawk symbolizes the perfect hunter and warrior to many tribes and are seen as omens of good luck. The special, brick-red feathers are collected at the time of molt by Native American tribes and worn for the power they’re believed to possess.
Sadly though, the red-tailed hawk did not have such a beloved status by European immigrants. Due to a lack of understanding of ecology or the essential role of predators in environment, the red-tailed hawk, then known as “chicken hawks”, was heavily persecuted because they occasional attack farm animals. Bounties were put out and it was not uncommon for the average hawk hunter to bag several hundred hawks in the course of a week. This heavy and foolish persecution was finally put to an end due to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which made it a federal crime to kill a protected, native bird species. However, not much longer after this was enacted did DDT become widely used, which devastated the populations of red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey. Thankfully, now that DDT has been banned, red-tailed hawks are now so successful across the country and New York City that they’ve been removed from the endangered list and continue to thrive.
In bird watching, there is something called a “spark bird.” A spark bird is the species that gets you pulled into bird watching and introduces you to your local environment for the first time. While I had been bird watching a bit before my first encounter with a red-tailed hawk, it was the bird’s power and majest that encouraged me to learn the individual behaviors of birds and other wild-things of Brooklyn. Living in an urban environment, it’s easy to forget that the land we live on is not natural. It’s slightly absurd that things large as airplanes fly above our heads. Why not take a step back and lose yourself for a bit by watching your neighbor soar confidently across the skies as they have been, through thick and thin, for thousands of years?