By Ann Carper
The alley behind our house on 39th Street has become a veritable Peaceable Kingdom. I’ve gotten used to deer wandering from the woods by day, raccoons gorging on garbage by night, and random sightings of rabbits and foxes. But I was totally taken aback when a hawk landed on our patio fence last month.
I emailed the photos to DC’s Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) Fisheries and Wildlife division and City Wildlife, a rescue and rehabilitation organization in Washington, DC, for help in identifying the bird.
Paula Goldberg, City Wildlife's executive director, soon emailed me that their vet, Kristi Jacobus, thought it might be a “red-tailed hawk based on its color," but that it was difficult to tell. A couple of days later, Dan Rauch, a DOEE fisheries and wildlife biologist, identified it as an immature red-shouldered hawk (buteo lineatus). He said that "immature red-shouldered hawks have heavy streaking on the breast, while a red-tailed hawk (buteo jamaicensis) would have a pale patch with a streaked 'belly band.' The heads and beaks are also slightly different, with red-tailed hawks having a stockier head and beak." In addition, Rauch said, "Hawks in the winter can be very confusing, since there are so many juveniles around that do not look exactly like their adult plumages." He identified the hawk below as a Cooper's hawk.
Goldberg noted that “both red-tailed hawks and Cooper's hawks are becoming more prevalent in cities and habituated to the sight of people." Red-tailed hawks, she said, are less skittish around people and eat rodents, while Cooper's hawks hunt on the wing and eat small birds. Cooper's hawks are seen in residential areas, but in her experience stay high in trees and are less likely to perch on fences, etc. Goldberg noted that City Wildlife reunited a Cooper's hawk fledgling with its mother and a sibling at Georgetown Visitation about a year and a half ago.
Other neighbors experienced hawk sightings last month. If anyone has good neighborhood hawk photos, email me and I'll add them to this post.
If you'd like to learn more about our city's wildlife, check out DOEE's Wildlife Management Branch, which sponsors a variety of education programs for District residents, including citizen science initiatives.