Visit to the Bald Eagle’s Nest Shows a Different Kind of “Family”

A red-tailed hawk chick is flanked by two bald eagle chicks.

A red-tailed hawk chick is flanked by two bald eagle chicks.

Nowadays, seeing a bald eagle’s nest is not a big deal. It was certainly 1979. Only four nests were known in Ohio that year. The magnificent raptor was on its way out, mostly victims of DDT poisoning.

Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (good for acronyms!) was a pesticide commonly used for agricultural purposes. Once it entered the food chain, the effects on certain bird species were catastrophic. In the case of the bald eagle, DDT weakened the eggshell and prevented successful hatching.

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Richard Nixon was inaugurated on January 20, 1969, and one of his first major initiatives dealt with environmental issues. He signed on to create the Environmental Protection Agency on December 2, 1970, and one of the first actions taken by the fledgling agency was to ban DDT. That happened in the summer of 1972.

Bald eagles’ recovery after the DDT ban has been a slow road. By 1989 there were a dozen nests in Ohio, and by 2000 nearly 60 nests were known.

The majestic national symbol is now entering the race. The Ohio Division of Wildlife estimates there will be over 800 active nests by 2022, a meteoric increase.

Take a look at the falcon

I have seen a great many eagle nests over the years but nothing like the one I saw on June 3rd. Photographer Stephanie Gaiser sent me a note about a nest not far from Dublin where one of the chicks was clearly not like the others. Her story immediately inspired me to visit.

Jim McCormac

Jim McCormac

Upon arrival at the nest, the two huge eaglets stuck out like sore thumbs. But wait! Right between them was a comparatively elfin red-tailed hawk chick! It looked about half the size of the eagles, but they all seemed to get along. Once an adult eagle came in and dropped a large fish into the nest. Everyone tucked into the sushi.

When I visited them, both the eagle and hawk were almost fully grown and were frequently testing their wings with violent flapping. The young redstart even made brief hover and test flights around the sprawling eyrie. The size differences were striking. A bald eagle weighs about 10 pounds, is over 2.5 feet long, and has a wingspan of about 8 feet. Redstart statistics: 2.5 pounds, 1.5 feet long, and the wings span about 4 feet.

The million dollar question is how the hawk ended up in an eagle’s nest. One theory is that one of the adult eagles snatched the red-tailed hawk chick from its nest and brought it back to feed. The falcon miraculously survived the ordeal, and the eagles were fooled into thinking it was one of their own.

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I attach little importance to this explanation. More likely, a pair of red-tailed hawks attempted to appropriate the eagle’s nest for their own use, only for the rightful owners to appear and reclaim it. By this time, the female goshawk had already laid an egg or eggs, which were incubated along with the eagle eggs. And voila! Peculiar bedfellows.

Fly like an eagle

This is not the first known occurrence of bald eagles rearing red-tailed hawks. Two occurrences have been documented in British Columbia and one each in Michigan and Washington State.

Bald eagle chicks are very competitive and have been known to commit fratricides – sometimes killing each other. It is all the more surprising that a hawk chick would survive. But red-tailed hawks are very feisty, and this one didn’t seem to swarm with its giant siblings.

I suspect they all hatched around the same time, probably mid-March. The eggs of both species require about the same incubation period: 30-35 days. But the hawks mature much faster and are ready to leave the nest after 45 days. Eagle chicks take about three months before they fledge.

In fact, within a week of my visit, observers were reporting that the adult eagles were behaving aggressively towards their adoptee – apparently to force him to grasp his wings. Young birds of prey sometimes need a little nudge to make their first flight.

In the meantime, the young redstart is traveling alone and hopefully he is doing well. His formative diet was likely high in fish, and it would be interesting to know if he attempts to continue that diet.

Naturalist Jim McCormac writes a column for The Dispatch on the first, third, and fifth Sundays of the month. He also writes about nature at www.jimmccormac.blogspot.com.

This article originally appeared in The Columbus Dispatch: Red-tailed Hawk Raised in a Bald Eagle Family