Give ‘em the bird
Scientists take look inside your neighborhood hawk nests
On a Monday evening in late June, Justin White stood on the grassy median between two softball fields at the Reno Sports Complex, looking upward. Out on the sports fields, swallows flew low over the clipped grass, and a few early softball players began to warm up for their 6:30 p.m. games. The sun was sinking low, throwing long shadows over the hills below Peavine Peak, and traffic rushed by on McCarran Boulevard. White’s attention, however, was fixed to a point 60 feet above his head—the top of a metal light pole, where a large stick nest sat nestled between two rows of round stadium lights.
White, a doctoral student with the Geography Department at the University of Nevada, Reno, is the leader of the Reno Hawk Project, a study of the Red-tailed hawks that live in urban areas of the Truckee Meadows region. Since April, White and a team of interns have monitored Reno and Sparks’ Red-tail nests with cameras, spotting-scopes and binoculars, trying to learn more about where urban hawks live, what they eat, and how they coexist with humans.
Now at the end of the first season of the project, young hawks had left their nests, and White and his assistant, Josh Snook, were collecting nest cameras to review footage.
“The first games start in 10 minutes,” White said to Snook. “We have to do this fast.”
White, wearing a navy blue work shirt, brown Carhartt pants and leather work-boots, put on a heavy nylon tree-climbing harness, and prepared his ropes. Snook, wearing similar attire, strapped into his own harness and attached a Go-Pro camera to his head. The hawks were nowhere in sight.
White threw up a rope and scrambled to the first metal rung on the light-pole, stepping over a brown and yellow sign, which read, FOR SAFETY: SPECTATORS ARE CAUTIONED NOT TO GO BEYOND THIS POINT. Carefully, he began to climb. Though White had been up and down many trees this season, this was his first time climbing a light pole, and the wind was picking up. Halfway up the pole, about 30 feet off the ground, he hesitated.
“You all right? Got it?” Snook yelled up to him.
“Yeah, everything looks good,” White replied, climbing on.
Snook, a local arborist, began his tree-climbing career while studying fish and wildlife biology at Paul Smith College in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, where he was part of a timber-sports team. After graduation, he headed for Alaska and worked as a professional lumberjack, putting on shows in the forest in Ketchikan. He moved to Reno about a year ago, and a friend put him in touch with White, who was looking for an experienced climber with an interest in wildlife.
Snook taught White the basics of tree climbing, and the two began installing nest cameras. In April, Snook installed the nest camera on the light pole at the Reno Sports Complex, and had his first close encounter with the resident hawk.
“When I got onto the platform, I looked up and there was a hawk sitting right on top of the lights, like five feet away from me,” said Snook. He worked quickly and stayed as far from the hawk as he could, while the hawk watched on.
“I felt like it was staring into my soul, trying to figure out what my intentions were,” he continued. “I just talked softly to it, like, ’It’s OK, I’m not going to hurt you.’ It never made a sound, it just stared at me. That was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.”
Reaching the top of the pole, at 60 feet—roughly the height of a six-story building—White and Snook helped each other onto the platform where the nest sat. The floor of the platform was a thin, see-through metal grate. Today, the large stick nest was empty, and White and Snook quickly disconnected the nest camera and took some photos. A few minutes later, they headed back down.
“That’s so high,” White said, landing back on the solid earth. “It’s so much higher than it looks. There’s a softball up there. Holy mackerel, it’s windy up there. That’s camera number three for today.”
“Nice. Awesome,” Snook said.
“Seven more to go,” said White.Raptor rapture
If cities are melting pots for humans, they are also gathering places for animals willing to live near humans and our sprawling ecosystem of neighborhoods, golf courses, bridges, parks, buildings and telephone poles. White’s project asks questions that hit close to home, like “What are Red-tailed hawks doing when we see them in our neighborhoods?” and “How have hawks changed their lives to live in urban areas?”
White grew up and went to college in Virginia, where he studied physical geography and international aid at James Madison University. After traveling to the Middle East and Haiti to do humanitarian aid work, White entered graduate school at Virginia Tech in 2011, then returned to Haiti and the Dominican Republic to study the Ridgway’s Hawk. He spent a season working in Ecuador with Andean Condors before moving to Reno in 2013 to attend UNR. Last fall, White began designing the Reno Hawk Project, under the direction of his advisor, Scott Bassett.
Starting in November, White and a team of seven interns began scouring the neighborhoods of Reno and Sparks looking for Red-tailed hawk nests, which are large bundles of sticks, up to 3 feet across and 6-and-a-half-feet tall, typically placed at the top of tall trees. They located approximately 70 active nests.
In March, Red-tailed hawks in our region begin laying eggs, usually two or three per nest. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs, which continues for about a month until hatching. In April, a few days after the eggs hatched, White and his team began monitoring about 55 of the nests, visiting each nest four times, for two hours per visit. They installed nest cameras above 24 of those nests, which took one picture per minute for five hours per day.
For White, a typical day on the job has been intense—nest monitoring from 6 a.m. until 11 a.m., problem-solving, checking on nests and answering homeowner phone calls after that, installing nest cameras in the evening, and managing data and intern schedules until 10 or 11 p.m. “Weekends, too—seven days per week,” said White.
Red-tailed hawks prefer to nest on structures that project above the landscape, and cities provide them with a variety of options. White and his team found hawk nests in unusual places—the light pole at the Reno Sports Complex, for one. Off McCarran Boulevard in Sparks, they monitored a nest on a wooden pallet secured to the top of a telephone pole, directly adjacent to the busy road and a construction zone. They found nests on golf courses, and one in a enormous Fremont cottonwood tree.
Snook and White are both relative newcomers to the area, but through the Reno Hawk Project, they’ve found themselves immersed a little-known network of people who gather around their neighborhood hawk nests in Reno and Sparks.
“There’s a really cool local community of people taking pictures, emailing stories around to each other, always keeping track of what the hawks are doing,” said White. “People follow the hawks and the number of young that they have from year to year. That’s been a really neat thing to step into as a local researcher.”Life below the nest
On Idlewild Drive in Reno, a prominent Red-tailed hawk nest draws a regular crowd to a tree outside of resident Ron Marko’s house.
“We have hundreds of people a night that go up and down the street, walking dogs, bicycling or whatever,” said Marko, who shares his property with the neighborhood hawks. “We’ll be eating dinner, and there’ll be a group of people standing out by the road with binoculars, pointing. In the last few years, the tree branch has died, so even more people see it now than used to.”
Ron and his wife, Rosanne, have been watching this particular hawk nest for about 17 years—13 years from a house across the street, then four years from their current home, which is directly adjacent to the nest. Their back yard looks out over the rocky channel of the Truckee River, and the nest is located high in a cottonwood tree on the west side of their property. The neighbors, Marko says, have a better view of the nest—but the Markos experience the action up close.
“In the morning, the hawks are always out here screeching. Yesterday, I found some organ, like a liver or a heart,” he said, pointing to the ground where he found it. “One time I was out weeding, and there was a thud next to me. I looked over, and there was a squirrel, still twitching.”
Living below a hawk nest is not for everyone, but the Markos enjoy it. Their dogs enjoy it, as well. “We get the squirrels, the bones, the pellets—every day I have to go pick up all this stuff because the dogs are pretty interested in it,” Ron said. “One came in the other day with a little skull in his mouth, a squirrel or something that they had dropped. We get to clean up after them. They’re pretty messy.”
The upside? The nest is pretty entertaining. The Markos and their neighbors share photos and stories, and look forward to the hawks returning every year. “When they’re coming in to land and their wings are just spread out against the blue sky—they are so beautiful,” Marko said, grinning.
White has found that almost everyone he encountered during the course of his project has stories about the hawks that live near their homes. “I think the coolest stories are about the longevity of nests, in which landowners have formed relationships with the hawks,” he said.
Red-tailed hawks are monogamous, and establish territories they defend from other hawks. Within a territory, a pair of hawks may have several nests, and will decide each spring whether to construct a new nest or repair an existing nest. A pair will often return to nest in the same area, year after year.
“Down in Callahan Ranch, they’ve had hawks for more than 40 years,” said White. “Different hawks, but same tree, same area. People form these interactions and relationships, and the hawks form a recognition of the interaction back. They acknowledge that it’s safe to be there and that those people in a certain spot are OK.”Birds on the green
On the golf course at the Hidden Valley Country Club in Reno, White prepared to remove another nest camera. “The nest is there,” he said, pointing to a spruce tree. “The parents hang out over there,” he said, pointing to another tree, and the silhouette of a large hawk. “Let’s see if they recognize me. It’s going to be chaos around here.”
The nest camera at Hidden Valley was the first camera White installed, and according to White, the hawks haven’t forgotten him—even on a golf course, where hawks see hundreds of people go by.
“It’s really interesting seeing how the hawks perceive people, and realizing what a complex ecosystem we live in, even within a city,” said White. “Hawks will habituate, or get used to people that aren’t threats. There were times when I would climb up to a nest, and the birds wouldn’t like it—and when I returned, even if I was wearing different clothes and a different hat, on a different day, they would go bananas just at the sight of my truck pulling up a few hundred meters away. So, after I left I had to try to stay gone.”
White pulled the golf cart up to the trunk of the tree, stood in the bed, and hoisted himself up to the first branch of the spruce. “Ouch, it’s a prickly one,” he said, disappearing into the thick canopy of branches.
One by one, nylon straps came flying out of the tree and landed on the golf-course green. From a short distance away, we could hear the “cree-cree-cree” of hawks calling to each other. One hawk swooped closer, circling the nest, and then flew off. A few minutes later, White descended with a long metal pole in hand, an army-green camera attached to the top of it with duct tape. He took a few measurements, and we quickly left the area. “That nest was at 39 feet,” he said. “The tree was 40 feet tall.”
Hawks feed on rodents, rabbits, small birds, lizards, snakes and other small animals. In the urban environment, places like golf courses can provide great hawk habitat, because the grass is watered and trimmed, and prey is abundant and easy to see. During the drought, hawks living in cities may have an advantage over hawks that live elsewhere, because our parks, yards and golf courses maintain a nice habitat for the animals that hawks prey on.
“I would imagine that if I did the same study 100 miles east of here, the hawks would be having a harder time,” said White.
With the food, however, comes the potential for stress and disturbance, and that’s a tradeoff urban hawks must balance.
“Sometimes, people try to take pictures and get too close,” White said. “They don’t realize that the parents are watching, and it stresses them out. When the young are on the ground or in someone’s bushes, the parents aren’t going to come feed that young bird because they don’t think it’s safe to access. People sometimes cause more stress than they realize, but that’s just part of living in the urban environment.”Birds of a feather
Just as hawks learn to balance the benefits and drawbacks of living in the urban environment, so must White. Benefits? He’s had countless positive encounters with residents who love to watch the hawks, and has been able to help interns like Snook gain experience and connections he hopes will help them in their careers. The drawbacks? He’s had equipment stolen—a Swarovski spotting scope, his camera and other small items.
On a Wednesday morning, White swings by the Markos’ house to deliver a season’s worth of nest-camera photos—approximately 11,000 images of the hawks. In Ron Marko’s office, they review some of their findings. All season, they thought that the nest in Marko’s yard held three chicks. Upon reviewing the photographs, White discovered that there had actually been four chicks in the nest the entire time.
“How often do they have four chicks? That’s gotta be fairly rare,” said Marko.
“I think there were three nests in Reno that had four chicks. It’s not that common,” said White.
The camera footage provided key information about the hawks that live in the nest, and the roles each parent played in taking care of the eggs and nestlings. “What I’ve learned after reviewing the pictures is that there are a lot of things going on that we can’t tell from pure ground observations,” White said.
The conversation moves on to White’s stolen gear, and Marko, who works as a T-shirt designer at Custom Ink in Reno, proposes starting a Booster fundraising campaign to raise money to replace White’s spotting scope before next season. And that’s another benefit of stepping into Reno’s neighborhood hawk-watching community: Some of them, like Marko, want to help his project succeed.
“[White] has been an amazing wealth of knowledge,” Marko said. “He’s provided a great deal of insight that we didn’t have until this year. We were fortunate to hook up with these guys.”
“The most fulfilling thing to me has been the excitement that residents have,” said White. “People get so excited about having hawks in their yard, and watching the young take flight. To be able to put that in some context to urban ecosystems, or put some cameras up there and share the photos with them, that’s been really cool—bringing the science we see elsewhere right here to our backyards.”
As the first season of the Reno Hawk Project comes to an end, White is headed to Virginia to visit family, then on to Arizona to do humanitarian work along the US/Mexican border. Snook is heading for Ecuador, and Marko—well, Marko may not have to pick up any more squirrel guts until next year, when the hawks return.