Ever wonder what it is like to be a first time bird mom?

One of the wonderful things to come out of the pandemic is the number of people who started watching streaming bird cams. Testimony after testimony speaks to the transformative power of the birds. They have brought joy to so many of us. The birds have taken away the isolation and loneliness of the pandemic. Together we have marvelled at how a Bald Eagle can shake the snow off her wings but never get a flake on the eggs she is incubating. We have held our collective breathes when Big Red, the Red Tail Hawk at Cornell, was blown off her nest.

We cried with joy when Ms Pippa Atawhai literally ran with her webbed feet to get to her dad, OGK, when he returned after being at sea. We smiled when they fledged wishing we could just hold on to them for a few more days. They touched our hearts.

Pippa (left) with OGK (right). @Cornell Bird Cams and NZ DOC

Since the end of January there have been many Bald Eagle hatches. There are many pip watches on the horizon and eggs are being laid around North America. In fact, the Bald Eagles in Canada’s most western province, British Columbia, have recently laid eggs, the earliest in the history of the nest at Surrey. Some of the parents are older and very experienced and for others, this is their first time to lay an egg, have it hatch, and have a tiny little eaglet to care for. It cannot be easy. They have no manuals. Their mothers or grandmothers are not there to help the young mothers understand how to feed their baby and care for it. And, yet, they do. The term ‘bird brain’ is misdirected. Study after study speaks to the genius of birds in terms of their communication, navigation, and their use of tools. An excellent book on this topic for the lay person is Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.

Along with using tools, communicating, and the migrating birds navigational system to get them to their favourite feeders in the summer, birds instinctively know that they must cover their babies in the snow and pouring rain when they have only natal down. The chicks, eaglets, eyases, or ‘babies’ as I often call them know to raise their little bottoms and shoot their ps out of the nest. They learn so fast! But wonder what it is like to be a first time ‘bird’ mother?

RTH hatchling J1, 2020. @Cornell Labs RTH Streaming Cam

At 11pm on the 23rd of February, the single eaglet on the Kisatchie National Forest nest hatched. Its parents are, as far as anyone knows, first timers. The nest is located in Central Louisiana. From the food deliveries, it appears that the area is relatively rich in prey, especially fish, which, of course, Bald Eagles love. The father understands his role as providing food to the nest, sometimes incubating the eggs, brooding the eaglet, and defense. The other evening when he took over brooding duties, out of habit he rolled the eaglet thinking that it was still an egg! The eaglet is fine but having rolled eggs for more than a month – it seems it might have become a habit, at least for the dads. The mother, in her enthusiasm, tried first to shove large bites of food in the eaglets mouth. It wasn’t working. It also was not working that she was holding her beak straight and vertical. Oh, when that poor baby got only one or two bites and the mother was ready to get back to brooding, I became the ‘auntie’ trying to explain to the young mother what to do through the screen. It didn’t work! Somehow the little thing managed grab enough of the big pieces that it survived. I admit to having my doubts for a couple of days. But then magic happened! On 1 March, the whole feeding process changed. Let me show you in a few images. I am so proud of both of them. Gold stars all around.

The chick is peeping and the mother responds by getting up from brooding. She moves to the pantry. The little eaglet is looking out of the nest bowl in the opposite direction from under its mother’s tail. This isn’t looking very hopeful.

Then the mother repositions herself.

OK. Mom is ready but, seriously. The little one is now in a different spot but still not aligned for a feeding.

The mother steps into the nest bowl, leans her head and tempts the little eaglet with a small piece of fish. She is teaching it to stand nearer to the pantry.

The little eaglet turns its head! And its beak aligns perfectly with its mothers. A nice bite of fish!

The mother continues offering bites, sometimes trying to hold her head differently. The little one continues to grab the fish. This is the longest and best feeding I have seen at this nest for this six day old eaglet. It is also getting stronger and can stabilize its head. I cannot even imagine what it is like trying to feed a bobble head.

It was almost a four minute feeding. The little one had a nice crop and it is now time to sleep and grow! For now the frequent feedings and smaller amounts are perfect. In a week we will see some longer feedings with larger bites. It is so wonderful to see these two figuring this most essential part of parenting and survival out. Fantastic!

Did you wait for a little one to be fed and then you said to yourself that it was alright for you to do something else or go to sleep? Everything just felt alright with the world. Well, today I smiled in relief. These two are going to be alright. If you would like to watch the little chick as it grows up at the KNF nest, please go here to watch the streaming cam:

Thank you for joining me today. It is almost spring…less than three weeks. Yippee.

Just hatched…a new bobble head!

Wow. This is really special. A pair of Bald Eagles came to visit a nest in Central Louisiana last year. It did not appear to belong to anyone. No other Bald Eagles flew in to chase them away. With the growing number of Bald Eagles, this seems almost impossible but, yes, the nest was not in use. In fact, it had been abandoned since 2013 when the pair that had used it for so very, very long no longer laid eggs. It is assumed that they were too old to breed. That mated couple kept the territory until last year. The nest is in a tree approximately 30.8 metres or 105 feet off the ground in Kisatchie National Forest. Isn’t this just a beautiful place for a nest?

Kisatchie Bayou. 2010. Wikimedia Commons.

The visitors from last year returned again this year. Little is known about them except that they looked to be very young adults last year. That couple have now claimed the nest and the territory. The female laid her first egg, the first in this nest in eight years, between 15-18 January. This cute wee one was born at 11pm on 23 February 2021. How exciting. As I write this, that chick is not yet a day old. One egg, one successful hatch. Let us hope for a successful fledge for this young pair.

The very first pip. You can see that important egg tooth and the beak.

The young mother looks down at the wonderment that is about to happen – the pip of her first egg! Dad is standing by the rim of the nest watching everything. It must be so magical for them.

It is hard work getting out of those thick shells but this little one now has a large hole and it can get its foot out.

Just born and tired. 11pm 23 February.

A few hours later. The natal down has dried off and the hatchling is actually quite strong.

Looking down with love at that little bundle of natal down. Her first eaglet!

In fact, both parents were so excited today that they spent some time together brooding their little one and sharing the moment.

There is plenty of fish in the pantry: a Sacalait or Crappie, a White Perch, and it looks like a sucker.

What a darling. It is a bit of a bobblehead and it is hard for this young parent to land a bite of that beautiful fish but they will both figure it out soon.

This is a nest that I am going to recommend watching. My reasoning is simple. The sibling rivalry that occurs at Bald Eagle nests where there are two eaglets, never mind three, can be very alarming. These are new parents who both seem totally involved with this first baby of theirs. That is another reason. You can find the stream cam here:

Oh, what a wonderful day. That little eaglet is almost twenty-four hours old. Let’s all wish it a long and healthy life.

Thank you for joining me and thanks to the KNF Eagle Streaming Cam. That is where I got my scaps. And thank you to Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Nearly Mother’s Day and I tip my hat to Big Red, a 17-year-old Red Tail Hawk for “Mother of the Year 2020”

If my mother were alive, I hope that she would understand why I am so adamant that a Raptor Formel should be nominated for Mother of the Year 2020.  It was, after all, my mother who carried the duck my father had given me to my grandmother’s every day on her way to work.  There the duck lived in a specially designed ‘cage’ or stayed in the hen house.  On occasion, the duck would join my grandmother and me for a swing on the porch. I know that my grandmother would approve as she had a fondness for all living creatures, as did my dad.

2020 is a very unusual year.  Since the end of 2019, the international community has been paralysed by COVID-19 that has killed nearly three million people as I type this.  Many are without jobs or health insurance.  Entire countries and cities have been under various levels and length of lockdown.  The funeral homes cannot handle the number of dead.  Hospitals have run out of protective gear for healthcare employees.  And there remains uncertainty from world leaders on how to continue to manage this virus.  Is it safe for people to be outside amongst one another?  or should we be locked down longer? When will a vaccine be available? When will people be able to travel? When will schools open? Will people have jobs? Will there be enough food?  The level of anxiety, coupled with the number of people working from home, has caused people to seek solace in cooking, reading, and learning.  Many have turned to nature with the number of individuals watching bird cams sometimes more than five times the norm.  I am one of those people.  I have a fondness for hawks ever since I first stood about a half metre away from a female Sharp-shinned hawk in our garden three years ago.  That moment had a transformative impact on my fondness for these regal birds of prey.

In early March I began following the exploits of a pair of Redtail hawks with their nest on the ledge outside the office of the President of New York University.  They were Aurora and her new mate, Orion.  Having laid three eggs, the pair took turns incubating them so the other could eat.  On the morning of March 26, Aurora did not return.  She did not return that evening nor the next day.  Everyone was in tears and devastated beyond belief.  That pair of hawks symbolised hope for the people watching who were living in the hardest-hit area of the United States at the time.  The virus was so harmful and so many people were dying that the parks were being turned into field hospitals and temporary burial grounds.  One of the members suggested that we switch our attention to the Bird Cams run by Cornell University.  And that is how I met “Big Red.”

Big Red is specifically a Buteo jamaicensis.  Technically this is the order Accipitriformes, and the family is the Accipitridae.  Leaving the fancy language aside, Big Red belongs to one of the most common hawk families in North America.  There are approximately two million.  The birds, along with their nests, eggs, and feathers are protected by treaties on migratory birds throughout the Americas.

Big Red was born in 2003 and was banded in Brooktondale, New York that fall.  When you look at pictures of her, you will notice that she has a large dark red head, nape, and throat and the most magnificent red tail feathers.  She currently resides on the campus of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York with her mate, Arthur.  Redtail hawks mate for life.  Arthur was born and fledged in 2016, making him a whole thirteen years younger than Big Red!  Arthur and Big Red completed their first breeding season in 2018; this is their third year for successfully raising chicks.  Arthur has a real pale head, chest and nape, not unlike the notorious Pale Male from Central Park in New York City.  For the last two months, this pair of hawks taught me so much and inspired so many others at a time when the world needed something beautiful.

Big Red is the epitome of dogged persistence and dedication to the task of taking care of her nest, incubating her eggs, brooding and feeding her chicks, and being a model for them for their successful life as raptors.  Since the first records at Cornell in 2012, Big Red has successfully raised twenty-one chicks!  There could be almost that many more uncounted – before the cameras – from 2006 (?) through 2011.

Big Red and Arthur are often seen in the late fall inspecting their nest which is eighty feet above the ground on a lighting tower on the campus of Cornell University.  Hawk nests can get very quiet high and wide as the couple continue to refurbish and redecorate annually. Typically, hawks have one nest, but Big Red and Ezra actually have two. For the last couple of years, they have favoured their current nest.

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Sticks and twigs ranging in size between eight inches and fourteen inches are carried from the ground to the site in anticipation of eggs being laid.  Redtail hawks lay between one to four eggs depending on the local food supply.  Typically, Big Red has a clutch of three eggs. Redtail hawks usually incubate their eggs from 28-35 days although in 2012 Big Red sat on her eggs for 35-38 days with the longest being 42 days in 2013.

Observing the weather in Ithaca, New York made me quite happy, actually, to be living in Winnipeg.  There were quite a few days where it was frosty with snow, but on April 17, Big Red found herself encased in ice and snow as she incubated her eggs, ensuring the survival of her chicks.

Below are the three eggs in the clutch. Big Red laid egg number 3 at 1: 23 pm on March 24.  She immediately “told Arthur” and began incubating the clutch.  Both Big Red and Arthur take turns sitting on the eggs until they hatch.

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There are several things to notice in this image.  The first is the nest bowl which is lined with soft materials.  Big Red and Arthur will continually maintain the nest bowl, making sure that it is big enough to hold the checks and that they cannot harm their tiny legs and talons.  Second, notice the pine.  The hawks bring these into the nest in preparation for the hatching of the chicks.  They help keep flies and their larvae away and protect the chicks from disease caused by flies.  And third, the bottom left egg has a pip, and the chick is beginning to use its body to crack the shell.  Pipping is when the chick first breaks through the shell with its “egg tooth”.  Sometimes it takes the chick up to twenty-four hours to completely break out of its shell.

pipping red tail hawk

It takes a lot of energy to hatch, and the newborn chicks are often tired for the first day of their lives.  Before long, however, their feathers will have dried off, and they will be covered with white fluff.

J1 hatching and J2 pipping

At first, the chick’s eyes do not focus well, and they do not quite understand what “food” really is and who is feeding them.  There is an awful lot of pecking and bonking that goes on with the siblings.  This settles down after about four or five days.

The chicks are not given names.  They are assigned letters of the alphabet.  In 2012, when Cornell University first installed its hawk cameras, the chicks were given the letter C after Cornell.  In 2013, the chicks were given D and so on until 2020 when the chicks have been given the letter J.

In the image below, the first hatched chick, J1, is trying to take a bite out of J2’s head!

Two chicks

J1 and J2 tiny fighting over a small piece of meat

3 chicks

It is up to Arthur to bring food for Big Red and the chicks.  Arthur’s territory is abundant.  Until the chicks fledge, he will bring chipmunks, squirrels, pigeons, Starlings, snakes, voles, and rabbits to the pantry.  There is never a shortage and viewers have been surprised – shocked even – at the plentiful supply of animals and at the talents of both Arthur and Big Red at hunting.  She has, in fact, brought some meals back with her when she has gone off the nest for a bit.

Arthur filling up pantry on May 1

These chicks have a lot of food security, thanks to the excellent hunting skills of Arthur and Big Red.  The rails to keep them in the natal nest are made out of their dinner.  Pine is scattered about to keep away the flies, and sometimes you could see the chicks sleeping with their head on a furry pelt.

all the food

Big Red fed and kept her chicks warm during a period of dangerous wind and heavy rain on May 1. I don’t think anyone slept that night and there was certainly a lot of emotion, even tears.

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wet2

And she has patiently made sure that each and every chick, from the first to hatch J1 to the tiny J3, is fed.

Here the three of them are lined up for an afternoon meal.  Little J3 is front and right with J2 front left.  J1 is behind both.  The trio managed to eat an entire chipmunk!  That was just one meal.  Big Red is feeding them a lot.  She still spends the night brooding, keeping those chicks toasty warm.  Soon they will sleep on their own at night.  Eventually, they will jump and flap their wings, preparing to fledge.  By then they will also be eating on their own, and Big Red and Arthur will courier food to the nest throughout the day.

3 lined up for a feeding

By the middle of June, all of the 2020 chicks will have fledged.  They will spend the summer learning how to hunt, and by fall they will be gone to find their own territory.  At the age of two, they will get their distinctive red tail feathers, and by three, they will have families of their own.

In the meantime, Big Red and Arthur will enjoy being empty nesters, and by late fall they will again repair their nest on the Cornell campus in preparation for 2021!

All of us who have gotten to know this hawk family and to learn a little about raptor behaviour have been inspired by the sheer dedication Big Red has maintained during the most horrid of weather.  We have watched J1 grow to be four times the size of “Little J3”. We have worried that the little one might be left out.  This was decidedly not the case!  J3 is right up there, and Big Red makes sure each is fed well, that they are safe and warm.  She is currently teaching them to preen their feathers and by observation, J1 today began flapping its wings.