Seeing a bald eagle’s nest isn’t so bad these days. It was definitely 1979. That year, there were only four known nests in Ohio. The magnificent raptor was leaving, largely the victim of DDT poisoning.
Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (good thing for acronyms!) was a commonly used pesticide for agricultural purposes. When it entered the food chain, it had a disastrous impact on some bird species. In the case of the bald eagle, DDT weakened the eggshells, preventing successful hatching.
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Richard Nixon was inaugurated on January 20, 1969, and one of his first major initiatives was to tackle environmental issues. He signed the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency on December 2, 1970, and one of the first actions of the fledgling agency was to ban DDT. It happened in the summer of 1972.
The recovery of bald eagles after the DDT ban has been a slow road. In 1989 there were a dozen nests in Ohio and by 2000 nearly 60 nests were known.
The majestic national symbol is off to the races now. The Ohio Division of Wildlife estimates there are over 800 active nests in 2022, a dramatic increase.
Glancing at the hawk
I’ve seen a lot of eagles nests over the years, but nothing like the one I saw on June 3. Photographer Stephanie Gaiser sent me a note about a nest not far from Dublin in which one of the chicks was decidedly not like the others. Her story inspired me to visit immediately.
Upon arrival at the nest, the two huge eagle chicks stuck up like sore thumbs. But wait! Right between them was a relatively elf-like red-tailed hawk chick! He looked about half the size of the eaglets, but everyone seemed to get along. At one point an adult eagle came in and dropped a large fish into the nest. Everyone dug into the sushi.
At the time of my visit, the eaglets and hawks were nearing adulthood and were frequently testing their wings with vigorous flapping. The young red-tail even performed short hovering and test flights around the vast area. The size differences were striking. A bald eagle weighs about 10 pounds, is over 2.5 feet long, and has a wingspan of about eight feet. Red Tail stats: 2.5 pounds, 1.5 feet long, and the wings span about four feet.
The million dollar question is how did the hawk end up in an eagle lair? 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 tricked into thinking it was one of their own.
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I attach little importance to this explanation. It’s more likely that a pair of red-tailed hawks tried to take the eagle’s nest for their own use, only for the rightful owners to show up and take it. By this time, the female falcon had already laid an egg or eggs, which were incubated with the eagle eggs. And There you go ! Strange bedfellows.
Fly like an eagle
This is not the first known occurrence of bald eagles breeding red-tailed hawks. Two occurrences have been documented in British Columbia, one in Michigan, and one in Washington State.
Bald eagle chicks are very competitive and known to engage in fratricidal behavior – they sometimes kill each other. Which makes it all the more surprising that a hawk chick could survive. But red-tailed hawks are very feisty and this one didn’t seem to mock its giant siblings.
I suspect they all hatched around the same time, probably mid-March. The eggs of both species require approximately the same incubation period: 30 to 35 days. But the falcons mature much faster and are ready to leave the nest after 45 days. Eagle chicks take about three months to fledge.
Indeed, within a week of my visit, observers reported that adult eagles were behaving aggressively towards their adoptive – apparently forcing it to take flight. Young raptors sometimes need to be pushed to perform their first flight.
Now the young red tail is out on her own and hopefully doing well. His training diet probably included a lot of fish, and it would be interesting to know if he tries to continue with this 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.