Friday, July 24, 2020

Hawks and squirrels: tough guys of Tompkins Square

I've been observing red-tailed hawks in Tompkins Square Park for well over a decade now and one thing that continues to fascinate me is their relationship with the resident squirrels. The two species interact frequently, and one might think the hawk would always win an argument, but that's not necessarily the case. In fact, the squirrels are more likely to come away victorious in a hawk-squirrel showdown.

This raptor-rodent interaction has been on display recently as the fledgling hawks are learning to hunt prey. Below, two of the three hawk siblings met up in a tree on the center lawn on a recent morning.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledglings

The tree, however, was already occupied by a squirrel, who was not happy to see these two on its property. The squirrels are extremely territorial and will confront the hawks when they land in their tree. As I see it, the squirrels own the trees and the hawks merely borrow them from time to time.

Red-tail fledglings and a squirrel

The young hawks are obviously interested in this squirrel, and I love seeing how they study its every move.

Red-tail fledglings and a squirrel

What these photos do not convey is the sound the squirrel was making. If you're walking through the park and hear this alarm call, that is a squirrel alerting to the presence of a hawk. Look around and you are almost guaranteed to find a hawk nearby. The squirrels make several other sounds, but this one is specific to the danger of a predator. I don't know if it specifically means "hawk" or is a general predator warning, but in Tompkins Square Park, the hawks are the only predator that upsets the squirrels.

About six weeks ago, dad Christo showed his kids how to catch a squirrel, and they've been trying ever since, but the squirrels have been too quick and wily, easily escaping the young hawks. Most confrontations end with the hawk giving up and leaving the tree.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledglings

On a recent morning, one of the fledglings was being much more patient, allowing a bold squirrel to get very close.

Red-tail fledgling and squirrel

Red-tail fledgling and squirrel

I watched this scene for about 30 minutes as the squirrel kept approaching the hawk, running away, then approaching again. From this very low perch about two feet off the ground, the hawk could see all the squirrels running around under the bushes, and this squirrel definitely did not like the hawk sitting there in its territory.

Red-tail fledgling and squirrel

While this was happening, one of the other fledglings was directly above in a tree with another squirrel.

Red-tail fledgling and squirrel

The squirrel seemed confident enough to turn its back on the hawk. Does it know the hawk can't catch it (yet)?

Red-tail fledgling and squirrel

The hawk never takes its eyes off the squirrel.

Red-tail fledgling and squirrel

The squirrels we have here in the city are Eastern Gray Squirrels. They come in a variety of colors (gray, blonde, dark brown, two-tone brown), and I recently found this interesting study that explains that some of them have black coats due to inbreeding with Fox Squirrels, who range across the southeastern US. The original paper can be found here.

Adult squirrels weigh 400-600 grams, or just over a pound. The hawks weigh anywhere from 1.5 to 3.5 lbs. For reference, Dora weighed 3.15 lbs when she was picked up by WINORR back in April 2018. Christo is smaller than Dora, Amelia is larger than Dora, and the fledglings appear to be somewhere in between.

For the hawks to catch and carry a squirrel means lifting almost half their body weight, which takes strength. To accomplish this, the young hawks have been practicing with inanimate objects like this substantial branch (below).

Red-tail fledgling catches a huge stick

We've seen fledglings in the past struggle to lift and carry off heavy prey, like this hawk who barely managed to clear a fence with a big rat and drag it down Avenue B in 2014. The youngsters seem to go for the most difficult prey first, like the squirrels and large rats, and eventually settle for things they can manage like smaller rats and mice.

Hawk-squirrel confrontations are nothing new in Tompkins Square, as we've been observing them over the last several years. Diving into the archives, I found this photo of a fledgling hawk checking out a squirrel in 2018:

Fledgling hawk confronts a squirrel

This is Christo staring down a squirrel in 2018. As the hawks and squirrels all co-exist in the same small area of the park, I imagine they are all familiar with each other and, as Christo is a top-notch hunter, you can bet the squirrels don't like him at all.

Christo annoyed by squirrel

Another fledgling hawk faces off with a squirrel in 2017:


If the squirrel is upside-down, you have to look at it upside-down! (2017)

Tompkins fledgling #2 with a squirrel

Christo (2017):

Christo and a squirrel

Fledgling (2016):

Fledgling hawk trying to catch a squirrel

Another fledgling (2016):

Tompkins Square fledgling with a squirrel

Dora (2015):

Dora and friend

Fledgling (2014):

Red tail fledgling and squirrel

Christo (2014) - if you look closely, you can see the feet of another squirrel sticking out below Christo on the right. Even seeing that one of its kindred was caught, this squirrel still challenges the hawk.

Christo and Squirrel

The squirrels are masters of maneuvering through the trees and they are not easy prey for the hawks. If a squirrel is on top of a branch, it can escape in nearly any direction. When I've seen Christo successfully catch one, he usually does it by grabbing it from the side of a tree, as demonstrated below in 2014. The two squirrels were together on the trunk of the tree when Christo came swooping in from around the corner and snatched one of them.

Christo catches a 

Although the hawks are able to catch the squirrels, they prefer prey like rats, pigeons and mice. The squirrels seem to know this, and rarely display fear of the hawks, although they do sound the alarm when one is around. The squirrels in Tompkins Square are well-fed, healthy, strong and have a courageous attitude that I think is unique to the park. I love that we have this unique opportunity to observe these wildlife interactions in this urban environment.

Red tail in Tompkins Square
Immature red-tailed hawk and a squirrel in Tompkins Square Park (2014).

Friday, July 17, 2020

Christo still providing for his kids who are becoming more independent

I'm happy to report we still have all three Tompkins Square red-tailed hawk fledglings sticking close to home. As they hatched earlier this year than in years past, I was afraid they'd take off by early or mid-July, but they show no signs of being in a hurry to get moving.

That said, they are spending more and more time outside the park. This morning, I saw one being mobbed by a blue jay on First Avenue. On another recent morning, I found one having breakfast on the roof of a building on Avenue A.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

The breakfast was pigeon, and I don't believe the fledgling caught it themselves. Although I did not see the catch, I heard the fledgling and dad, Christo, tussling in the trees a few minutes before. I believe Christo caught the pigeon and the fledgling came and took it.

While it ate, Christo landed on the building next door.


He is well into his summer molt and looks pretty scraggly. His head and face are very pale, making his eyes look extra big. He and Amelia seem to be molting earlier this year - in previous summers, I didn't notice molting in either one until late July. You can learn more about bird feather molts here.

Christo (molting)

This shot shows how small his head looks compared to his body as he's lost a lot of feathers on his head and neck, making him look a little out of proportion.

Christo (molting)

As I observed Christo, the fledgling abandoned its breakfast and flew to another building where it cried at dad. I'm not sure why it was begging for more food when it still had half a pigeon, but this is what they do.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

Keeping its eyes on dad, the fledgling decided to come closer.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

For what ever reason, the fledgling took a run at Christo, forcing him into the air. The pigeon was on the roof just off to the left, so I don't know why it acted so aggressively with Christo when food was within sight. If dad isn't continuously proving food, I guess he needs reminding!

Christo and his kid

Christo was forced to take off, dashing any hope of the kid getting a second serving.


A couple of days later, I found one of the fledglings (I'm not sure if it was the same one or not) in a tree in the park struggling to hang on to a huge rat. The rat was pretty stiff, so it wasn't fresh, and I suspect it was another gift from Christo.

How to deal with this heavy rat?

Unable to drag the rat up to the branch, the fledgling dropped it in the grass, then proceeded to cry for Christo to come pick it up. The crying went on for a good 15 minutes until Christo did, indeed, come swooping down from a tree to retrieve the rat.

However, a split second before he got to it, the fledgling decided to pick it up after all and dove down and mantled it. Christo just barely escaped without getting his legs clawed.

Fledgling swoops in on Dad

I am guessing this is all part of the learning process. Christo is pushing the kids to take care of themselves, but they still want him to do all the work. He patiently waits for them to take action and, when they don't, he steps in to help. Seeing the fledgling go for the prey before Christo gets to it is exactly what it should do as it needs to be fast and aggressive when hunting.

Christo and his kid

Once the fledgling was secure with its rat, it decided to play with it for a while, pouncing on it and picking it up. This is all practice for the real deal.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

I thought the rat might be too heavy for the young hawk, but then it went and picked up a substantial piece of wood and dragged it around the grass.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

All the while, Christo watched from a nearby tree.


All three fledglings are looking great and I'm so happy they are with us this season.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

More to come...

Friday, July 10, 2020

Hot hawk water sports

So far, it's been an uncomfortably hot and humid summer in the city, causing a lot of people and wildlife to take refuge in the shade during the day. The Tompkins Square hawks are no exception, often seeking out sprinklers or puddles in which to cool off on these sultry days.

I found one of the fledglings behind the park offices the other day as it took a dip in the lake formed by a clogged drain.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling cooling off

Looking in the mirror

Although the hawks get most of the water they need from the food they eat, they do need to drink water on hot days like this.

Taking a drink

Fledglings being kids, there are always pool toys to be had, like this dried leaf.

Pool toy

The hawks are curious and will pick up almost anything. I was alarmed to see this hawk play with a piece of red rubber from a broken water balloon. Thankfully, it did not ingest it, but it shows how things we leave behind can easily harm wildlife.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

Soak time over, the hawk flew off to find something else to get into.

Tompkins Square red-tail fledgling

On July 6, a powerful thunderstorm swamped the city, so I went out to check on the hawks as soon as it was over. I found Amelia drying out on the cross of St Nicholas of Myra church on Avenue A and 10th Street.

Amelia after a rain storm

She was having a bad hair day, but I bet she felt good.

Amelia after a rain storm

One of the fledglings soon joined her and air-dried its wings from the top of the cross.

Fledgling and AMelia

What are you looking at?

Fledgling and Amelia

Speaking of looking disheveled, it's summer molt time for the adults, Amelia and Christo. Both hawks are looking a little ragged, but Christo always makes the most dramatic transformation.


It will become more obvious in the next several days, but Christo's head has gone very pale and his neck has lost a lot of feathers, making him look skinny and bony. He's also missing at least two tail feathers and, the last I saw, Amelia was missing one as well. This is completely normal, and both hawks will look messy until their new feathers grow in later in the summer.