Ever notice a huge bird with a 4ft wing span and a red tail soaring overhead and freaking out the pigeons? It could be Wilbur or one of his kin, a Red-Tailed Hawk, or to be fancy: Búteo jamaicénsis. If you’re at the farmer’s market at McCarren on Saturday, pay attention to the stadium lights near the running track; there is a big red-tailed hawk’s nest on the platform. On Christmas day, one swooped only a few feet away from us there. There have also been reports of red tailed hawk hanky panky at Winthrop (aka McGolrick) Park recently. Red tailed hawks have needs, too.
On a recent morning my backyard looked like a murder scene, feathers were scattered all over the tree branches. A big bird was likely the culprit. Then, the day after Christmas (after Santa gave me a butt kicking pair of birding binoculars), we woke up very early to see Wilbur sitting in that same tree, at the same level of my third floor walk-up.
“Get up! Get up!” I screamed at 7am, “You have to see this!” I was as excited as if a polar bear had shown up in the yard (but less scared). Wilbur hung out for a few hours, picking at a pigeon carcass. Every time a little squirrel balanced on the telephone wires I tensed up, hoping Wilbur wouldn’t notice.
To learn more about our honorary backyard visitor, I talked to Peter Dorosh, President of the over 100 year old Brooklyn Bird Club. Peter, a 5th generation Brooklyn native, has birded his entire life, has been a member of the club for over 30 years and he is a bird genius.
Wilbur is an adolescent red tailed hawk, which you can see from his white breast and streaky brown chest chest. Red Tails are birds of prey, raptors that are members of the Buteo family, which kill and eat mostly small mammals (squirrels and rats) and sometimes other birds. When I asked whether we should guard our chihuahua’s and other miniature pets from red tailed hawks, Peter said, “it won’t happen, pets are too large.”
Wilbur might not be a boy because Peter explained, “you can’t tell unless you see the mates side by side,” with females a bit bigger, but “single birds are ‘fuhgettabouit’ as we say in Brooklyn.”
Living in the city is tough for these raptors who suffer from “habitat loss and pollution, or flight obstacles,” like crashing into reflective windows and can also die from eating poisoned pigeons or rats, Peter said.
Wilbur also might not be here to stay, even though I hope he is. He might be just passing through, like many other raptors during seasonal migrational periods. When I asked Peter how many red tailed hawks there are in Brooklyn, he said it’s hard to tell, but there aren’t many since they are predatory and territorial and require a lot of habitat. He asked his friend Rob Jett, the City Birder, who said there are “at least 3, but more likely 5 pairs, plus their offspring from this year. Probably around 15 to 18 individuals.”
How lucky we are to have seen Wilbur in our own Greenpoint back yard! (Check out Brooklyn Early Birds for a list and photos of more birds we’ve spotted since I got my magical binoculars!)
Red tailed hawks aren’t the only amazing birds of prey we may see in Brooklyn or nearby. Peter listed others to look out for: “broad wing hawk, red-shouldered hawk, American kestrel, Merlin, peregrine falcon (a stronghold resident in NYC which it breeds in very densely percentage wise), Sharp-shinned hawk, Coopers hawk, Northern Goshawk (rare), Great Horned Owl, Long-eared owl, Northern Saw-whet owl, Barred Owl (Central park), Snowy Owl (reported on 12/17 Brooklyn Xmas Count, Barn Owl (Jamaica Bay), Short-eared owl, Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Northern Harrier, Osprey, and Rough-legged Hawk ( in mid winter most times).