Hawk Family with Triplets in a Nest

-- a journal to fledging


    This is a Red-tailed Hawk who is raising her three chicks, triplets again, right in the middle of San Francisco. I obviously do not have the equipment for photographing at such a great distance, but I wanted to include these photos in my urbanwildness site.  I am dealing with the high wind, branches and leaves hanging in the way and blowing between the nest and the lens, severe shadows in the trees, and manual focus at a distance that makes it a guessing game. I am learning that these are all the challenges.

    I had noticed the mom alone on her nest for some time, and then, on April 17th, a full month after the owlets appeared, I noticed ONE small white fluffy ball of feathers with a beak. By April 24th there were more but I knew not how many until May 2nd -- when there were three tiny heads. These chicks are hatched asynchronously, so there is an age difference of a few days between them. The interesting thing is that only 3 days later I went back, and these chicks looked huge! They were already standing high, growing dark feathers, holding on to the edge of the nest and stretching their wings.

   Dad, again, is omnipresent. I’ve seen him plunge into the hillside to grab a mouse, and then fly with his prey in his talons, first to a spot away from the nest, and then to the nest itself (might he have been trying to divert anyone who might be trying to follow him? or maybe he was making sure the animal was totally dead before delivering it?)

    On May 7th, in the early afternoon, I found the three chicks alone in their nest initially, but within a few moments BOTH parents landed there simultaneously; dad took off again almost immediately -- to a nearby tree where he watched, while Mom fed a garter snake to the chicks before taking off herself! I don’t know which of the adults brought the garter snake in; this exact same scene has been played out every time I’ve seen them, but with the prey being a gopher which was torn apart for the chicks, or sometimes a squirrel. The chicks are definitely at different stages of development, with the eldest displaying most of the activity such as quick hopping while wing-flapping  (lots of it on 5/11), and he’s covered with much more of the adult plumage. And the second chick is more advanced than the last, who is the quietest and whitest of the bunch.

    On May 13th Mom OR Dad arrived at the nest (alone this time) and deposited something there before taking off right away. The youngest didn’t even look over, but the older two stared at the object and poked at it a bit -- they were interested but not necessarily knowledgeable. THEN the mom arrived again with a very large prey. She stood fairly still in the nest with the prey in her talons -- squeezing it dead -- it was a gopher, or at least the size of a gopher. Then, she proceeded to tear off pieces, feeding only the little runt: ripping the prey apart, and carefully feeding the little guy piece by piece.  It was nice seeing the little guy being given special treatment. The next day, Dad dropped by, just long enough to land then leave, as Mom sat quietly with her brood. There was no food involved with this last visit.

    May 15th showed new behavior: altruism! The chicks were alone in the nest with food -- pulling at it, rather vigorously, in turn. The little guy tried grabbing at the food unsuccessfully, then crouched down to beg, and an older chick obliged by feeding him -- and then continued to look after him!!!! Very exciting! Later on Mom stopped by briefly to check on things -- it seems she’s teaching them to eat on their own by not being there to help. She dropped a gopher and left. I’ve noticed that the chicks spend their time keeping an eye out for Mom (off and on) and curiously observing each other eat or flap wings -- and, now it seems, helping one another. They also play with sticks. It is all very charming!

    May 18th the chicks groomed themselves and one-another and stretched their wings. They also tossed around a gopher pelt/carcass that must already have been cleaned of its meat. Their age difference can still be seen by their head feathers: the oldest has the darkest crown, the next has more white mixed in, and the youngest has the whitest crown of them all. I did not see the parents today.

    By the 21st, Mom is gone from the nest most of the time. A couple of days earlier she flew in-and-out in the blink of an eye (I almost missed her) dropping some prey in front of the baby. The baby tore at the food energetically, while the others looked out of the nest the other way. I wondered why they didn’t all rush for the food. WHEN the baby was done, middle-guy DID race over to the food spot, but I guess there was nothing left to pick up. The chicks spend a good deal of time lying prone in the nest or standing while pulling at their feathers (maybe new feathers itch). And today, one spent some time observing his own dark shadow moving on the tree trunk! I’ve noticed the younger one looking up to the oldest, paying particular attention to him and poking at his beak as if asking for food. This and the owls are my first real ‘bird watch’ and I’m finding it all very fascinating.

    A big step was taken on the 22nd and then 23rd: the big guy was branching “big time”. This is the first branching I myself have seen. He fly-hopped to a nearby branch and then fly/hopped back: more like climbing with the help of the wings -- it looked like he was having fun as he was learning his skills, like a new young skate-boarder or skier. The younger two chicks did not join in. The baby definitely has a strong bond with the eldest -- they both spend time nuzzling each other -- mostly beak-to-beak. Mom dropped in twice with food within less than an hour today. More activities include pulling at one’s own toes, and middle-guy pulled at the wing and head feathers of the baby today.

    “Look, Mom: I can balance on one foot!” The middle-guy got out on a branch today, May 24th; the baby gave it a thought, you can see, but decided not yet. Mom dropped a gopher and left. They are not really flying, but rather jumping, climbing and hopping -- all with a lot of wing flapping. As of the 27th, all hawklets still spend most of their time in the nest: today they pulled each others feathers, played with a stick and nuzzled each others’ beaks -- all three of them together! Two of the hawklets went out on a limb; but the last fellow has yet to do so. The oldest, out on the limb, began concentrating intently on ground activity -- maybe he’s seeing small animals of prey moving around?  Ahhh, they’re to the point where you barely can tell the two older ones apart, which means they are all developmentally ready to go. Middle-guy still has very few white head feather sticking up; the baby still has a bunch of these.

    It appears that the eldest fledged on May 28th -- I did not see him at all, for the first time -- not in the nest and not on a limb. The middle-guy spent most of my watch-time on a limb, so the baby was very all-alone in the nest, but made no attempt to join his sibling on the branch. Mom brought a gopher to the nest: middle-guy, having been out on the limb was too late to dibs it, so the food became the baby’s, who waited calmly several minutes before tearing into it. Middle-guy, back in the nest now, lay down and didn’t move -- maybe he was tired from branching today?

    The middle-guy took a first flight on the 29th -- and I was there to see it!  The little guy remains alone (for now) in the nest, looking very forlorn and quiet -- he hasn’t even attempted branching. He’s always seemed much younger than the older two. But on the 30th he DID step out on the branch briefly!  And, on this same day, the 30th, middle-guy returned to rest in the nest -- company for the baby, while big-guy flew in to a distant branch and remained there (he did not return to the nest) -- I was able to see all three again on this day. The next day little-guy was branching more, the others were flying around; middle-guy even visited the nest.

    On June 1st I got to the nest to find the baby sprawled out and lethargic -- his only movement was batting the flies when they became too annoying. I was alarmed at first, but the day picked up from here. Mom flew in with food and a sibling accompanied her. Mom stayed much longer than usual this time: after remaining in the nest for a bit, she went out to the branch as the baby ate, watching him and waiting for him. When he was through eating, he followed her to the branch, whereupon she stooped low and took off, swooping down and away: “this is how it is done”. The baby walked out onto the branch with the help of flapping wings but did not fly off -- he’s not quite ready -- but he stayed there a long time and stretched his wings. I saw the big-guy flying, but not to the nest. Middle-guy took a nap in the nest. June 2nd no one was in the nest -- little-guy was on a branch sleeping with head hanging low almost the entire hour that I was there, and with a feather stuck to his beak. He jumped back into the nest right as I left.

    On the 3rd I saw the little guy in the nest with an older sibling. He did not venture out on a branch while I was there, though he might have at some point during the day. Mom made a food drop and left. Both young birds must have been ravenous because both dashed to get the food. Middle-guy either got there first, or was dominant, because he pulled at the food and ate, while little guy stood facing out of the nest. No altruism today! When the bigger guy finished he hopped onto a branch and watched the little guy devour the second pickings. Both hawklets then lay down, slept and nuzzled each other beak to beak -- nice camaraderie here!  Oldest sibling flew in and then left, and little-guy spent about 20 minutes of my watching-time on a branch, but the rest of the time he was inactive or sleeping in the nest. This was repeated the next day, though the little guy was further out on the branch. No change on June 6th, but a sibling was flying around close by. June 7th the little guy and his nest-buddy were taking turns eating a pigeon that was already in the nest when I arrived -- both hawklets stayed in the nest for my entire visit.  On the 8th I saw no hawklets in the nest! The baby has fledged (!) -- eleven and twelve days, respectively, after the other two had fledged. Final update 6/8.

    The “Coyotes in San Francisco” and “Urban Wildlife in San Francisco” are continuing projects -- I’ll be adding to these pages regularly in chronological order with the most recent photos appearing at the beginning. New photos of these hawklets, if I encounter them, will appear there.