UPDATE: The chicks have hatched!

We have new tenants in the California Dome! A pair of red-tailed hawks has made a nest of sticks and twigs and mama hawk is brooding over at least one egg.

You can see the nest from the ground if you stand in the southwest corner of the California Quadrangle in front of the San Diego Museum of Man, and look to the north, up at the dome.

Click the images for larger versions.

Mama and papa hawk are very protective of the nest — shrieking and flying to the tops of nearby trees if they see too much movement from the adjacent California Tower — but we managed to keep our distance and still take a few zoomed photos. The shriek, by the way, will be very familiar: it’s the sound movie and television sound editors use for any kind of hawk, eagle, or falcon.

Go here to help name the birds!

Our neighbors at the San Diego Zoo have a lot more experience than we do with living creatures (we’re pretty good on the dead ones), so we invited one of their experts, Senior Bird-keeper Paul Colo, to tell us more about the birds.

Can you tell us more about the relationship between the male and female?

Most birds of prey and red-tails will mate for life. They won’t remate unless one of the members of the pair dies. In that case, the bird could re-pair very quickly, if need be.

They generally lay one to three eggs, and pretty much every other day is a normal laying cycle for a female. Incubation can be from anywhere 28 to 35 days.

We can tell by the size of the small nest that this is the first year they’ve nested here. If they come back next year, they’ll add to it if it’s still there.

A baby hawk is referred to as an eyas. There’s a lot of raptor terminology or jargon that goes back to old English and German because of falconry and the use of birds of prey for thousands of years.

The thing about red-tailed hawks is that when they have youngsters, the juvenile plumage will be different than the iconic brick-red colored tail of the adults. The birds don’t get their red tails until they’re at least a year or two old and go through their first molt.

The chicks you’re going to see here in this nest are going to be brown-tailed with bars on them for their first year or their first molt. They may get a full red tail, or they’ll get half a red tail, depending on how their molt plays out.

What’s the lifespan of a red-tailed hawk?

They can live anywhere up to 21 years in the wild. I think the longest record for a captive red-tail was 29 years.

San Diego Zoo Senior Bird-keeper Paul Colo

Are there other red-tailed hawk pairs in the Balboa Park?

There could be more than one other mated pair in the park. I frequently see a pair that’s successful on Switzer Canyon [which connects to the eastern edge of Balboa Park]. They’ve repeatedly nested in there. This could be the same pair or a separate pair. There’s enough game around the park and surrounding local land to support more than one pair.

What do they eat?

They hunt feral pigeons, birds, reptiles, but primarily squirrels and rodents. They keep things in balance. They’re quite opportunistic. They’ll specialize from area to area, depending on what’s available and what they get good at in ambush-hunting.

The female is bigger than the male and this helps with the hunting. Later on when the chicks are big enough and hatched, she can go out and help the male feed. She can catch bigger prey in the area. During the time of incubation, the male being smaller and more agile, he can take taking advantage of smaller sized prey in the area. It creates a greater prey structure that they can benefit from and exploit in their area. They’re not limited to one size of game.

Doesn’t it seem that people really love these birds? Their faces look like they’re ready to go to war.

I think raptors in general have a very special look that inspires people. They have been the tokens and emblems for various armies. I think most people look at them, especially a red-tailed hawk, they have that really iconic face and build.
Is there any kind of program that tracks these birds?

There are people who are licensed to band raptors and mark and measure then. I’m sure people do studies on them but I don’t know of anybody working with these birds in the park.

The red-tailed hawk is really common throughout its range in North America, from southern Alaska through the US as far south as Panama, and also in the West Indies there are subspecies of the red-tailed hawk.

Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m from here in Southern California. I grew up in the LA area. Went to college in New Mexico. Came back here after I graduated in 1985 and I got a job at the Safari Park and then transferred to the zoo with the bird department.

What do you most like to do at the zoo?

I think it’s having the oppurtunity to work with such large, amazing, and diverse collection of birds.

Did you keep your own birds?

My last bird was a seven-year-old Harris hawk, and before that I flew a golden eagle on a rehab permit in New Mexico. But I’ve flown a variety of raptors under a federal Fish & Wildlife falconry license.

For more information about red-tailed hawks, visit the the San Diego Zoo website.

Interview by Grant Barrett. Photos by Meylia Pflaum.