Native to North America and widespread throughout the continent, hawks are sharp-eyed birds of prey with a distinctive scream. That iconic call of the bald eagle in movies is actually the screech of a red-tailed hawk, used in cinema for its dramatic effect. Hawks engage in a fascinating courtship display involving soaring flight that leads to free fall. Once these courtship rituals begin, hawk mating season is underway.
When is Hawk Mating Season?
Hawk mating season occurs once per year during the spring. This typically occurs during late February through May, however it can vary by location and occur earlier in the southern parts of their region and later in the North.
A Word About Hawk Terminology
The keeping of any trained captive birds of prey is called falconry, which used to be called “hawking.” Any of the birds of prey in falconry can be called hawks. “Hawk” is actually a common name loosely applied to birds of prey in different ways throughout the world. The red-tailed hawk is a member of the Buteo genus, and not a “true hawk” of the Accipiter genus. In North America, they are considered hawks and are the most common hawk and the most commonly observed raptor throughout their range. In this article, we’ll explore the breeding season for red-tailed hawks and also consider the factors specific to other hawk species.
Do Hawks Mate for Life?
Hawks are monogamous, meaning that they breed with one partner during a mating season. Many hawks mate for life if conditions allow for it, and red-tailed hawks are no exception. They’re known to choose one partner and often remain paired throughout their lives. Hawks are generally solitary animals who only link up during breeding season. If they cannot find their mate for some reason, or one of the pairs dies, the remaining hawk will likely find a new mate. Although monogamy is the typical pattern for red-tailed hawks, it isn’t the case for all hawk species, and a journal article in The Condor presents an example of three red-tailed hawks tending to one nest.
The Aerial Dance of Courtship
The high-circling, aerial flights that occur during hawk mating season are rituals of courtship meant to strengthen existing bonds or to develop new ones. If you are lucky enough to observe this breathtaking display in action, you might notice the outspread wings of the pair in flight.
During this mating ritual, they may be soaring high in tightening circles toward one another. The female may begin a pattern of undulating flight in which they will barrel-roll away from the other and then fold wings into a dive, before opening into an ascent. The male might circle higher before diving down to meet their mate who may roll over and display talons, facing the diver as he passes. Intricate patterns of rolls and light caresses of feathers in flight will lead to gripping each other’s talons and free-falling through the air. Suddenly, they’ll let go and spread their wings to soar apart and out of sight.
Once paired, hawks will either build a new nest or if their old one is still considered safe, they’ll return to it and revamp it for the season. These nests are built over a period of 4 to 7 days out of two to three foot long branches arranged in tall piles that average 6.5 feet tall and 3 feet wide. The interior is lined with strips of bark, dry vegetation and fresh leaves.
Both partners participate in constructing the nest. They’re secretive and if disturbed during this process they may abandon the site in favor of a more private location. Although it varies by location, nests are typically built up high in the crown of trees with an excellent view of the surrounding landscape below. In forests, they might nest near the tops of trees close to their trunks. In some areas they may choose to nest on cliffs or take advantage of man-made structures like power line towers and window ledges.
Hatching Young Hawks
Red-tailed hawks lay 1 to 5 dull white to blueish-white eggs that are often irregularly spotted. These have an incubation period of 28 to 35 days. While the female does most of the work of incubating the eggs the male will feed her. The female does much of the work caring for the young nestlings once they’ve hatched. Both parents may bring food back to the nest, but the female is normally the one to feed them. The young hawks fled at 44 to 46 days old. The parents will continue to provide food for their fledglings for 4 to 7 weeks. The young start to grow their flight capabilities and hunt on their own but may remain with their parents for up to 6 months.
Other Hawk Species Mating Seasons and Behaviors
Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
Cooper’s hawks mating season happens once per year during the spring. They tend to be monogamous birds but this isn’t always the case. Their courtship rituals are flexible and may involve only the female, only the male or both at the same time. They engage in mutual sky circling along with sky dances involving arching, flaring and other types of displays. They typically prepare their nests between February and March and lay a clutch of 3 to 5 bluish-white eggs.
Northern Harrier (Circus hudsonius)
The Northern harrier is a slim, long-tailed Accipiter hawk that lives throughout much of the United States and sub-arctic Canada. They prefer open habitats of marshes and grasslands. Northern Harriers are known to be both monogamous and polygamous. Polygamous males will usually have 2 or 3 mates. However, one male hawk was identified as having attended to 7 females simultaneously! In these polygamous situations, each female maintains her own nest with the male coming around to tend to her individually.
Courtship occurs with flight displays and feeding rituals. Sky-dancing is a form of display involving U-shaped, undulating flights high above the countryside. Males that display the most typically have the most success, and interested females will follow them to potential nest sites at the end of their display.
These hawks are also unique in that they nest on the ground, either alone or in loose colonies. Outside of breeding season they will normally roost communally on the ground, sometimes with short-eared owls. Harriers often return to nest in the same general area, but will find a new nest site each year. During mating season, a pair will select a sit on the ground, almost always in open habitat. They place them in areas of dense vegetation and often in wet areas and take several days to weeks building the nests. They lay one clutch of 4 to 7 eggs.
Sharp-Shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)
During courtship, sharp-shinned hawk pairs may circle one another while calling out, flying high above the forest. They may perform aerial displays and sometimes spread their fluffy white under tail feathers to the side. The breeding season for sharp-shinned hawks is typically in April and May. This species often builds a new nest each year, although the same nesting area may be used repeatedly. Like most hawks, they prefer to nest up high in the trees, typically 30 to 35 feet above ground. They lay 4 to 5 dull white to brown spotted eggs. Incubation of the eggs takes 34 to 35 days and the responsibility is shared between the male and female.
Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)
The ferruginous hawk is a broad-winged Buteo hawk that lives in open grasslands, shrublands, and prairies. Courtship flights involve high, circling flight. Ferruginous hawks are one of the most adaptable nesters of any raptor. They use trees, ledges, rocky outcrops, haystacks, platforms, power poles, and even nest on the ground at times. In the northern parts of their range they lay their eggs from late April through late June, while farther south this occurs from late March through May. They lay a clutch of 3 to 4 whitish speckled eggs, on average. Incubation of the eggs is shared by both parents.
Harris’s Hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus)
These hawks are unique in that they are very social birds. They hunt in cooperative groups of 2 to 6. This is thought to be adaptable to the relative lack of prey in the desert climate where Harris’s hawks live. They live in the southern United States and down through Central America. These hawks may engage in polyandry, although this is debated. What is known is that there will often be three hawks attending to one nest, typically two males and one female. Harris’s hawks nest in small trees, shrubs or cacti. They build compact nests made of sticks, roots and stems, lined with softer leaves, moss and bark. These hawks lay 2 to 4 white to blueish-white eggs, sometimes speckled pale brown. Females of this species may breed 2 to 3 times per year.
The photo featured at the top of this post is © Ronnie Howard/Shutterstock.com
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