The Nature Writers of Texas

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Sunday, March 07, 2004

Hawk Nests are Built in a Variety of Locations
Ro Wauer, March 7, 2004, The Victoria Advocate, © 2004

A recently reported nest atop a utility pole along Loop 463, between Mockingbird and Ben Jordan in Victoria, is that of a red-tailed hawk. It is a huge nest, built of sticks, situated at the top of the pole. When I checked it out, an adult hawk was sitting on what I assumed to be a clutch of eggs. It probably is too early in the season for youngsters, although I suspect that hatching will occur any day. And then we can watch the adults bringing food back to the hungry nestlings.

The nest was first reported to be that of an eagle, but eagles do not nest in such locations, and most bald eagle nests, the eagle species that does nest in the Coastal Bend, would probably be considerably larger. In fact, one bald eagle nest in the East was measured at 10 feet across and 20 feet deep. Bald eagles often utilize the same nest for many years, normally adding several sticks to the nest every year. There are records of eagle nests becoming so large that they eventually break the tree branch on which they are built.

Hawks, including eagles, as well as some owls, such as great horned owls, are some of the earliest nesters. Already most of our local bald eagles have fledged young. Red-shouldered hawks have been screaming overhead for several weeks. Doves and pigeons are early nesters as well, although these birds will usually nest two or even three times each year. And many of the full-time resident birds are also nesting, or at least preparing to nest. Carolina wrens, Carolina chickadees, bridled titmice, northern mockingbirds, and northern cardinals are in full courtship mode. The neotropical species, birds that overwinter south of the border and spend only the breeding season in the U.S., nest somewhat later. Most of these neotropical migrants are only now, as the day lengths increase, getting the urge to head north. Many fly nonstop across the Gulf to Texas from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, while other take a land route.

Nest types vary considerably. Although the larger species, such as the hawks, build stick nests on poles, on tree branches, and even on ledges of cliffs when available, other birds utilize very different nests and sites. Many are cavity nesters, taking advantage of cracks and crevices in trees, cliffs, and even riverbanks. Examples of cavity nesters include many of our more common species, such as chickadees, titmice, bluebirds, martins, and woodpeckers. Kingfishers are also cavity nesters, actually constructing tunnels in dirt banks.

Cliff swallows construct closed nests of tiny mud pellets, usually placed under a concrete bridge or similar place. Although cliff swallows usually return to their natal nesting ground and often only restore last year's nest, a colony of these birds are just as likely to complete brand new nests in record time to lay eggs, fledge their young, and be heading back south within only eight or ten weeks.

Many other birds, including most of the neotropical migrants, build open nests in foliage or on tree limbs. In fact, 77 percent of all birds utilize open nests. Hummingbirds, for example, construct tiny thimble-sized nests of grasses and spider webbing on branches. These tiny nests are flexible so as the family grows the nests expand. Warblers, vireos, doves, thrashers, thrushes, and even finches utilize open nests.

There also are a number of birds that nest on the ground, some barely building a nest at all. Our common killdeer, for example, may only smooth out an area for a nest. Nighthawks practice a similar nesting regime. Quail, such as our bobwhites, also are ground-nesters. All of these usually lay numerous eggs and produce very precocial young, many able to run about within only a few hours after hatching.

The nesting red-tailed hawk along Loop 463 offers an exceptional opportunity. Most large nesting birds shy away from people. But here is a pair that has decided to share their lives with interested humans. But stay some distance away, like across the highway, so they will not vacate their nest.

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