A tale of two hawks

Red-tailed hawk (Photo by Bill Hubick)

Red-tailed hawk (Photo by Bill Hubick)

April 13, 2015 | by Mark Stabb

Each spring the hills of the Happy Valley Forest become the stage for a spectacular aerial ballet. They have a short run over the woods, but if you are lucky you may see the swooping, diving courtship display of red-shouldered hawks. If you miss the sky-dance you might still catch the vocals as their piercing calls penetrate the leafy canopy and reach a far wider audience.

This wild annual performance is brought to you by...habitat conservation.

Red-shouldered hawks are one of several raptor species that live in the Happy Valley Forest, northwest of Toronto. Some are deep-woods species — creatures that seek out and thrive in habitats away from people and human activity. Red-shouldereds prefer large, mature hardwood forest blocks, with scattered ponds and wetlands where they can find amphibians and other small animal prey. They build their helmet-sized nests in the crooks of branches in the upper reaches of the tree, where they return year after year and where they drop their flamboyant behaviour.

Red-shouldered hawk taking flight (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Gouldingken)

Red-shouldered hawk taking flight (Photo by Wikimedia Commons, Gouldingken)

Biologists searching for red-shouldered nests must be particularly quiet and cautious when approaching an occupied territory, because the birds crouch down low on the nest when disturbed by intruders. The birds are also known to slip silently away, leaving eggs exposed. Researchers use spotting scopes to find subtle clues of nesting such as fresh down feathers, newly clipped twigs or evergreen twig "decoration," thought to have anti-parasite qualities. Or they may glimpse the head or tail of the wary bird or nestling.

Nesting birds react similarly and often more drastically if there are frequent, noisy and unknowing visitors in the area. These birds are sensitive to disturbance.

Red-shouldereds are the direct beneficiaries of protected spaces and nature reserves, where human access is somewhat limited. These areas give the birds a place of peace and quiet, sanctuaries for them and for other deep-woods species such as scarlet tanagers, hermit thrushes and northern goshawks. In some areas the birds benefit from seasonal trail closures, designed to give the birds temporary protection for the nesting season.

Many people in eastern Canada are more familiar with the much more common red-tailed hawk. This is the roadside raptor you see along highways and fields, peering down from telephone lines and perching posts. Red-tailed hawks thrive in the mixed countryside and habitat fragments we have created across southern Ontario. They nest in tall trees, like red-shouldered hawks, but they often breed in small woodlands. And the birds hunt out in the open, in plain sight, unlike the more secretive red-shouldereds.

In a city-mouse, country-mouse kind of way, red-tails like to live where we do, in gentrified landscapes, while red-shouldereds are the more rustic rural relative.

A similar parallel exists in the owl world. Barred owls are the habitat kin of the red-shouldereds, the more reclusive forest dwellers. The more common great horned owls inhabit the mixed and settled lands occupied by red-tails. Both barreds and great horneds occupy the night shift niche that the daytime raptors vacate when hunkering down for the night.

As this is written, the owls are at the end of their breeding season. By the time this is published, their downy young will be curiously watching the forest below. And every once in a while they will look up and into the forest interior, where the red-shouldereds will be sailing, repeatedly crying out their distinctive calls (KEE-ah! KEE-ah! KEE-ah!).

The performance is not meant for us (or the owls) but it does announce that the Happy Valley Forest is a place of wild nature and intact habitat. It is a bit of feathered feedback celebrating the fact that, as far as nature conservation is concerned, we seem to be getting it right in this corner of the GTA.

Mark Stabb with Ella (Photo by Mark Stabb)

About the Author

Mark Stabb is the Central Ontario-East program director for the Nature Conservancy of Canada and was the NCC lead on the Happy Valley Forest conservation project from 2006 to 2017.

Read more about Mark Stabb.

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