Like many longtime Central Texas residents, red-tailed hawks have been adjusting to a new lifestyle in recent years. As the Austin area has urbanized, the rust-colored raptors that historically hunted in rural fields are now nesting in downtown buildings and divebombing along the highway.
Red-tailed hawks coexist well with humans; they famously nest in New York’s Central Park. Experts say the hawks are flourishing locally and have become more visible around Austin, especially this time of year, when the birds are building nests and laying eggs.
“They’re very adaptable to humans,” said Craig Farquhar of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “They can move in and set up shop in parks and neighborhoods. They’re pretty easy to get along with, for some reason.”
The hawks have become highway hunters, scooping up rats, mice and pigeons along MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1), Interstate 35 and U.S. 183.
“You see them on the light poles and so on because they’re able to hunt those grassy medians along the highway,” said Barry Lyon, a member of the Travis Audubon Society’s board of directors. “They’re after small rodents and will even take large insects.”
Ed Sones, who rehabilitates birds of prey, said highways aren’t always the safest place for them to hunt, however. The birds often don’t see the traffic when they’re focused on food.
“If they’re going after prey, they really get tunnel vision,” he said.
Sones is treating two red-tails at his home in Cedar Park, one of which was found along the highway in Round Rock. He said he treats about 10 red-tailed hawks a year. Many of the adults Sones treats have been hit by cars, but the younger birds he sees are usually picked up on sidewalks in downtown Austin.
“Downtown streets are not a good place to learn to fly,” Sones said.
Despite those dangers, hawks and humans have largely gotten along in Austin. Last year a couple of red-tails built a substantial nest in a tree just outside a parking garage at Capital Chevrolet, off I-35. The birds tried to come back this year — red-tailed hawks frequently return to the same spot to nest — but the heavy winds that hit earlier this month tore the nest down.
Why exactly the hawks have adapted so well isn’t known.
Sones said that Austin’s red-tailed hawks’ diets might have expanded. He’s heard reports of the raptors, which traditionally eat small mammals and landlocked birds, eating grackles — blackbirds that are a plentiful food source in Austin.
As the area has urbanized, humans’ views of the hawks have changed, Sones said. Farmers and ranchers historically shot at any hawk for fear it would feed on their chickens. Sones said red-tails were never really a problem, but they were frequently confused for Cooper’s hawks, which do eat other birds.
“They’ve just improved their image with people,” Sones said. “People think they’re magnificent, not vermin. I can’t think of a legitimate reason someone shouldn’t like them.”