• Red-tailed hawk in flight, wings spread wide, soaring, dark blue sky with moon.

Red-Tailed Hawks Need Their Space, Too: Territorial Disputes in the Red-Tailed Hawk Community

Red-Tailed Hawks Need Their Space, Too: Territorial Disputes in the Red-Tailed Hawk Community

How do they protect their broad territories, even here in crowded Cambridge? Read on and find out!

Look up! Into the sky! If you are in the right place, like in Cambridge’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, you’ll see some red-tailed hawks (a.k.a. “red-tails”) soaring above you, to and from their nests. Graceful, seeking, at home. The sky is their home.

You’ll also likely hear one of the male red-tails making quite the distinct noise as he endeavors to protect his territory: a piercing, usually high-pitched descending - sometimes ascending - screech. A respectable warning, indeed. Red-tails, like most hawks, have a broad territory, ranging from 650 feet to over 18 miles. Their communities can include groupings of twenty individuals, including couples. So there are often a great number of community members to defend against intrusion by unwelcome hawks and other birds.

Although the female of the red-tail is larger - sometimes twice the size – than the male, the male is the red-tail gender that does the territorial defense, and he does it by circling around, emitting his distinct screech. He lifts of from his high-location tree nest and swoops around, evidencing nature’s honorific ways of ensuring safety and survival.

But sometimes problems arise with red-tails’ effortful defense. Other birds can be covetous and keenly, unrelentingly "want in,” or the protection is downright overbearing. “It’s not quite bullying behavior, but, sometimes, we come to see that something needs to be done,” laments CeeCee Callbird, Wildlife Grappler for the City of Cambridge. “We try to keep intervention as simple and respectful as possible, which is why, when there’s an issue, we always start with mediation.”

[Image: Graphic of mediation. Credit: en.wikipedia.org]:
Red-tailed Hawk mediation is conducted on the site of the disputed territory, and enjoys great success. Ms. Callbird brings in two experts in hawk mediation from the world-class nature dispute organization Get Outta Here! Jason Barrs and Sammie Holston are seasoned hawk mediators. “We just gather them all together in the middle of the territory – the protectors and the seekers – we call the intruders 'seekers' because it’s so much less judgy - and have a session. Sometimes twenty,” says Mr. Barrs as he emits a hefty sigh. "Sometimes forty," confirms Ms. Holston. "But we keep right at it! And we cheer each other on," she chirps, playfully elbowing Mr. Barrs.

Of course, it goes without saying, red-tails cannot speak, so there’s another profession involved in these mediations: the Hawk Interpreter. Grimmy Bates and Liza Street are two of the most talented red-tail interpreters around. Brimming with seasoned pride, they boast, humbly, “We can get any hawk to let us know of their hopes and dreams, and we support the mediators to help them work things out. We love it. We’re so good. We’re that good. Yes.”

This process can really smooth out any and all territorial disputes. It seriously works, which is why you so rarely hear the West Side Story song “When You’re a Jet” coming through interpreters’ voices when sitting with the hawks. But there can be some other issues. Sometimes the female hawks don’t much like the fact that the males do all the protecting. Says Grimmy, “They know they are larger than the males, but they don’t have the social power. They are generally required to do all the care of the young, and they want something more from life. “

Speaking through a Hawk Interpreter, one female red-tail says, with the grimly socially requisite balance of female nice-clear, “These gender-defined roles are oppressive. How much longer must we put up with it? Everyone misses out when our roles are so fixed.”

In fact, many of the female hawks are loyal members of Hawks for Gender-Free Roles, a member-driven organization that offers consciousness-raising sky groups, and sees both male and female hawks join with strong interest. “Male hawks can be feminists, too, and some male hawks don’t much like doing the protecting. They get hurt, their voices get sore. It can be anxiety-producing, or boring. The work can also feed anger and resentment. So there is movement under way to shake up the gender-assigned roles among hawks, where the males do more of the young-rearing and the females suit up to do the territorial protection.”

It’s no minor thing, or even particularly laughable, thinking about red-tails dealing with anxiety, anger issues, or boredom when defending their territory. One male red-tail laments the vicious cycle he and the other males are forced into: “Society doesn’t like it one bit that we males are aggressive, but we are often forced into roles that require just that. And I speak for many in my community when I say I’d love more time home with my young. I’m missing out on their development. I didn’t see my youngest fall from the nest, flounce around and take flight. I’m sad.”

And such sadness can turn into deep depression. Among the last things professionals who support red-tails want to see happen is the need for psychotropic medications for anxiety and depression. “Meds are a last resort,” confirms Leala Drummy, Wildlife Psychiatrist for the much-maligned national organization Medicating Wildlife (MW). “Yes, medications have their role, but all other measures should be explored first, and we here at MW support the gender-role shake-up, as well as planned vacations for the territorial protectors.”

[Image: Retreat Center. Credit: Commons.wikimedia.org]:

“We here at Getaways Are for the Birds create a space. A big space, with both structured and unstructured, inward-seeking renewal time for territorial defender birds, like the males of red-tails, to have a break from the dread, anger, and family-time loss that comes with the role of territorial defense,” says Garland Havernathy, Recreational Director of Getaways. “Most people don’t even know we exist, which is both sad and ridiculous, because it’s an obvious need. And we meet the need. We have a big, inviting building, and lots of sky. Lots of it. and green grass, and places to move around, unencumbered by other birds to be fending off.” Red-tails can stay at Getaway for up to three weeks at a time, enjoying the solitude and rest from territorial protection. "We do find that, at the end of this time away, the red-tails are ready to go back and resume defending their communities' spaces, keeping the peace."

There are also local community groups that sometimes get involved, too, to aid in disputes and the restoration of peace among red-tails in Cambridge. One such community group is the Faithful Society for Friends of Hawks. The Faithful Society for Friends of Hawks believe in that of feathery Spirit in every bird and does a lovely job of sitting and Waiting far below a raging dispute. Patient to a fault, these faithful Friends can be found many-a-Sunday sitting in a circle in the middle of a disputed territory, utterly covered in hawk guano, whilst waiting for Light and other good things to happen. It’s lovely, warm, and heartening. Says Society member Karina Normandy, “We love it that by waiting, just waiting, the Spirit of the red-tails finds its way into the upheaval, and helps them work it all out. We’ve never seen it fail, even if it takes seven or nine years to resolve a single dispute.” Thank you, Friends!

So there we have a colorful picture of how a great many people show their commitment to the resolution of territorial disputes among the red-tailed hawk, include our own such red-tail communities here in Cambridge. And, hey, if the red-tails can resolve their disputes whilst largely up in the air, it can give us all great hope for our resolving our own human disputes right here, on the ground.