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  • Writer's picturePam Owen

Hawks and squirrels: The ups and downs of raising families

After writing about Northern Gray Squirrels and Red-shouldered Hawks starting new families this spring in my newspaper column, I expected to give detailed updates on as both families’ young emerged, but nature has its twists and turns. Basically, the squirrels were successful — the hawks, not.

The mystery of the hawk family

In straining to verify that actual hawk chicks were somewhere in their deep nest 50 feet up a White Oak tree, I was finally happy to observe, on April 25, that the adults were feeding chicks. While watching the nest a day or two before, I had seen the adults carry away what appeared to be remains of squirrels. On the 25th, my observing the hawks was distracted by other bird activities nearby, and I missed the mom arriving at the nest. But as I looked back up to the nest, I saw her begin to tear meat from a carcass, eating some herself and apparently feeding chicks, too — her head bobbed down into the nest with a piece of meat and came up without it. I also thought I heard the sounds of at least two chicks.

If I had done my math correctly, the chicks should have fledged around May 9 this year. But a few days later, I didn’t see any sign of life at the nest or in the area. This was not alarming at first, since the hawks can be stealthy about coming and going. But day after day, I took time to go into the forest to watch the nest and the hawks did not return. A week or so later, I heard the cry of an adult circling overhead, and on occasion ever since. At least one of the adults was still around, but what about the chicks?

Four Red-shouldered nestlings such as the ones above were what we hoped to see before the nest was suddenly deserted. (By Dave Boltz)
A month later, this youngster looks about able to fledgle. (By Dave Boltz)

When the hawks disappeared suddenly, I also saw no sign of any chick parts at the base of the nest, so I doubt this year’s brood succumbed to disease or pestilence. A few predators might attempt to prey on these relatively large chicks that high up in a tree, even with two fierce parents defending their young. The two most obvious predators for this species are American Raccoons, which are great climbers, and Great Horned Owls, which are one of the few raptors big and bold enough to take on the hawks.

I’m home most days — or my housemate, Julia, is — and the nest is close to the house. We would likely be aware of any daytime disruption there, since these hawks are loud when they are disturbed. But when the chicks are at the stage these should have been, the adults would likely be guarding them from nearby trees at night. I’ve seen no raccoon signs on the property since we moved in, but they hunt at night and with chickens here for them to try to prey on, we likely would hear them or see scat.

The other option — a great horned owl, which also hunts at night — is more likely. But, while the species is widespread in North America, the frequency of one showing up here is low, according eBird, the largest bird-sighting database in the world. The frequency of observations of the owl on checklists sent from observers in Shenandoah County is below 2 percent, with the last observation in the county coming from other side of the Shenandoah Valley November 2022.

While living in Rappahannock County, I had heard one of these owls a few times, but they didn’t seem to stick around. I haven’t heard one where we live in Shenandoah, but I do hear a Barred Owl or two frequently. Rarely do those two species reside near each other, since the Great Horned Owl is also known to prey on the smaller Barred.

Did the chicks fledge and disappear?

Last year as we moved to the property, Julia and I heard the loud cries of two young Red-shouldered Hawks that had just fledged and were communicating back and forth with one of the parents, which stayed near the nest. The youngsters were taking trial flights lower between nearby trees.

Moms of this species normally watch over the young for six to eight weeks after fledging, according to some sources. The young are fed before they leave the nest and are watched over by their mom while the dad continues to bring them food. In our case, we heard the family’s cries for about six weeks before the hawks dispersed.

Red-shouldered Hawks usually breed in March, but the trigger for breeding appears to be the lack of snowfall. Although this winter was cold, we had little snow here, and none was on the ground in February, when the hawks started repairing last year’s nest and starting a new brood. That month was also unusually mild, but temps soon took a downturn.

Julia and I worried for the hawks, especially when it was hard to see whether either adult was keeping them warm up high in that deep nest. When they disappeared, we were sad to see the end of this saga, missing the chance to watch learn to fend for themselves like the brood in the previous years. It would have been worth the noise to see that again.

Do we really need more squirrels?

While the hawk breeding saga came to an abrupt, mysterious end, the large population of Northern Gray Squirrels here grew significantly this past spring.

On April 12, when I returned from a visit with my brother and his wife at their new second home is Tucson, Arizona, I expected to see tiny squirrels running all over the place. More squirrels did seem to be busy near the feeders, but most looked about the same size as the moms that had been feeding there since they were weaned last year. At least one of the new moms — and perhaps her sister, too — had raised her brood in the cavity of an old White Oak in which she had been born.

While Julia reported seeing a much-smaller squirrel at one point in my absence, it may have emerged from the nest either by choice or force before it was weaned, or from another nest nearby. We have no shortage of squirrels here. This heavily forested property, in the foothills of the Alleghenies, is rich with them, much to the delight of the Julia’s young(ish) and excitable Aussie Shepherd. My old dog, on the other hand, has thrown in the towel when it comes to running them off.

Northern Gray Squirrels breed twice a year, some starting in less than a year after birth. We saw a lot of squirrel romance this past winter, when the first mating season begins — the second one season is in summer. To complicate determining the age of squirrels, their moms fatten up to bear and feed, but by the time the youngsters (kits) are weaned, the two generations can be hard to tell apart by size unless they’re side by side. I’ve seen squirrels come and go from the cavity that I think both sisters may have used to raise their young this past winter, but I can’t be sure which generation I’m looking at by size. A better clue is the behavior of the squirrels showing up on the deck.

Last fall, when three newly weaned kits (the above-mentioned two females, and one male) emerged from the nest in the oak, which is close to our deck, for days they ran around only in that tree. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I feel safe in saying that they were frolicking. However, as with most play, their shenanigans were also practice in how to escape predators, drive off competitors, and attract mates.

A squirrel at a feeder
A young, female Northern Gray Squirrel chows down after a few frenzied hours of being pursued by courting males.

By the end of spring, most of the many birds that had been using our feeders had moved on to breeding grounds elsewhere. I had not minded helping the squirrel moms keep their weight up by allowing them to vacuum up some of the food. And Julia and I enjoyed seeing the antics of their offspring as they educated themselves about the food source.

By that time, about all we were feeding were the squirrels. As many as six would show up just on the patio, sucking up the small amount of food I was casting around for some of the few birds that still came to look for food there. A chipmunk had also recently joined the feast. But sunflower seeds are expensive, and the wildlife eating them had a forest full of free hickory nuts, acorns, and other food all around them. They would be fine foraging on their own.

In trying to study the squirrels' reproductive process, also I learned something new about their diet. As I was sitting on the deck one day watching the new crop of squirrels, I saw an adult doing something that took me a minute to understand. During the winter, I had found a couple of large antlers from different deer species in the forest near the deck. The previous owner had placed quite a few interesting artistic features around the property, and they were likely part of his collection. I decided to add the antlers to these features by placing them on the top of a pergola that supported two nonnative (but also not invasive) honeysuckle vines. I liked the pagan aspect the antlers leant to the pergola’s charm.

The adult squirrel I was watching that day on the deck was apparently chewing on the antlers, which are made of bone. While it surprised me, I was reminded of the need many animals have for calcium, especially during the breeding season. In researching this activity, I found that squirrels do indeed often chew on antlers to get calcium and other nutrients. In fact, they will also cache small bones to have frequent opportunities to chew on them.

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