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In The Country

King of the Forest

Tim Iverson
Seasonal Naturalist
Cunningham Falls State Park

(12/2013) The Red Shouldered Hawk is known as the king throughout deciduous hardwood forests of Eastern North America. This small stocky bird is the culmination of millions of years of evolution to be a streamlined bird of prey. This little red raptor is capable of dodging and weaving through dense forest canopy and thick brushy understory of old growth forests in search of its prey. Yes, this bird claims its place at the top of the food chain and isn’t looking to share with anyone else.

Red Shouldered Hawks are ubiquitously found east of the Mississippi from Maine down to parts of Mexico. It thrives in old growth forests eating primarily small mammals, snakes, amphibians, and from time to time smaller birds. This forest king will perch just below the canopy and scan the forest floor for food. Once prey has been spotted it quickly soars down and snatches its’ meal. This small hawk contends for the same habitat and food resources as other predator birds like the Barred Owl, Great Horned Owl, and Red-Tailed Hawk.

In order to avoid competition for limited resources the Red Shouldered Hawk is active during the day time, while Barred and Great Horned Owls are active at night. The Red Shouldered Hawk is also very aggressive and defensive. You can often hear their calls ring out through forests sounding like "kee-rah" repeated over and over again. This serves as a warning to interlopers to butt out. Crows regularly gang up on Red Shouldered Hawks in order to drive them out of their territory to protect their young. However, occasionally the Crow and Red Shoulder will team up to drive out a mutual enemy – The Great Horned Owl. There has been at least one documented case from National Geographic of one Red Shouldered Hawk giving chase to a Great Horned Owl. Meanwhile the hawk’s mate captured and feasted on a juvenile Great Horned Owl from the nest.

This forest king is listed as "Least Concern" as far as its’ overall conservation status. However, populations have been in steady decline due to deforestation. Timber stands are harvested for commercial use and suburban sprawl have encroached on their habitat. As a result population numbers are thinning, especially in the Northeastern United States. Frequently these raptors have fatal encounters with cars. Litter alongside roadsides is a significant contributor to this problem. Often time’s people throw food trash such as banana peels, apple cores, or empty food bags that attracts the prey that these birds feed on. When raptors swoop down to secure their meal they are struck by cars. Throwing away trash alongside the roadway is unnecessary and destructive to raptors of all kinds. The best contribution people can give to this or any other raptor is to throw away trash properly.

Another way to positively impact future populations of the Red Shouldered Hawk is to plant trees. The state of Maryland recently began an initiative to increase forested lands to 43,000 acres in the next seven years. This goal was set forth by the Forest Preservation Act of 2013. The Department of Natural Resources also has a program called TREE-Mendous Maryland that allows private citizens to purchase a tree to be planted on public lands. Renewing and providing new forested habitat is another one of the best ways to ensure a steady population. Regardless, last month I discussed trees, so to avoid beating a dead horse, I’ll just leave it at that.

The aviary at Cunningham Falls State Park houses one of these forest kings. This bird, like so many others there, was hit by a car. It is one of the fortunate few that survived, but as a result of being hit can no longer survive on its own. One wing had to be amputated because of the accident, and cannot fly. This bird would surely starve or get picked off by a predator if it were to be released, so his new purpose in life is to educate visitors on human interaction and how we can be fatally careless in regards to others in shared territory. Her home at the aviary boasts several perch varieties and enrichment activities to stimulate problem solving and brain activity.

Another great way to help raptors like this is through the symbolic "animal adoptions" program that is offered by the Scales & Tales program and aviary. *Cue heart wrenching ASCPA type commercial* By symbolically adopting one of these animals the donation money received goes towards paying for veterinary care, new enrichment activities, supplies, and more. Those who choose to adopt receive a fact sheet and cardstock letter of recognition with a picture of the animal adopted. Needless to say, they make great gift ideas or stocking stuffers for this particular time of the year (I know, I know…shameless self-promotion).

Take a hike through the forest, drop by the aviary, or keep an astute eye peeled in your neighborhood and you just might see one of these magnificent birds for yourself. Through simple actions everyone can have a huge impact on securing the future of this forest king. Disposing of trash in a trash can or planting a tree are incredibly easy ways to both save raptors from potential disaster and keeping our shared habitat beautiful.

Read other articles by Ranger Tim Iverson