Birds of a different feather: Sidney eagles adopt red-tailed hawk chick

Birds of a different feather: Sidney eagles adopt red-tailed hawk chick

A red-tailed hawk chick is seen in a bald eagle nest. Credit: Lynda and Ian Robson

There’s an unusual family now making its home in Sidney, perched high above Roberts Bay.

That’s where Lynda Robson and her husband Ian, who volunteer with the Hancock Wildlife Foundation, noticed something out of the ordinary when checking on a bald eagle nest May 31.

The nest was known to be home to three eaglets and their parents, but what the Robsons saw in the nest at first left them baffled.

“My husband said there’s something really odd, there’s a small grey bird in there, and all the other eaglets were huge black birds at that point,” Lynda Robson said.

Robson sent her video to Hancock Foundation founder and eagle expert David Hancock, who identified the new member of the family as a four-week-old red-tailed hawk chick.

In a blog post, Hancock said the situation is certainly out of the ordinary, but not completely unheard of. He says there has been a documented case of eagles taking in a red-tailed hawk chick in Tsawassen, and a report in Campbell River, as well as instances of eagles becoming adoptive parents to other hawk species.

But Robson says the situation came as a total surprise. 

Red-tailed hawks and eagles are natural adversaries,” she said.

David Bird is an emeritus professor of ornithology at McGill University, a member on the Hancock Foundation’s board of directors, and—as it happens—a neighbour of the Sidney nest.

He says the two species natural animosity is a large part of makes the situation fascinating. The first question was how the hawk chick even came to be there.

“We’ve concluded the likely scenario is this pair raided a local red-tailed hawk nest and captured at least one of the hawks and brought it back to the nest [to feed on],” he said.

When the egg hatched, Bird says the chick wouldn’t have known anything was amiss.

“They wouldn’t know the different, they would just want food.” But he says the eagle parent’s instincts about what to do with the new arrival would likely have been more conflicted.

“Do I kill this little piece of food here and feed it to my chicks I raised, or do I feed it?” 

Whatever may have led the eagles to decide to care for the hawklet rather than kill it, Bird says the young guest in the nest appears to be thriving and could be able to leave the nest in two weeks time.

“I’m obviously rooting for the hawk to leave the nest,” he notes.

Since word about the adopted hawk started getting out on bird-watching websites earlier this week, Bird says a steady steam of bird watchers have been making their way to the nest, with telescopes and binoculars. Robson’s first video of the adoptive eagle parents feeding the hawklet has now been viewed nearly 15,000 times.

But Bird says he’s concerned the hawk’s three, much larger 10-week-old adopted siblings may decide to kill it if they are hungry and the parents are away from the nest.

If the baby hawk does make it out of the nest and to adulthood, Bird says there will be another potential pitfall to its early encounter with what should be a rival species.

He says studies have shown that raptors that imprinted on other birds at an early age have been known to show confusion when it comes time to mate.

“And a bald eagle being courted by a red-tailed hawk is going to threaten the red-tailed hawk with being eaten, so that’s a non-starter.”



Keith VassKeith Vass

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