Hawks of South Florida

By: Glenn Wilsey, Sr.

We have many types of birds in South Florida. Some are always here and others are only here for a short time since Florida is a migratory route for birds from around the world. The topic of this story will be birds of prey, specifically, the hawks of South Florida. There are several types of hawks in Florida, however, I’m going to focus on just two of them. The red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks are the hawks that are seen most often here in South Florida and in the everglades.

The red-tailed hawk stays more to the western half of the everglades. The western half of the everglades as I’ve explained in previous stories is the Cypress forest. The red-tailed hawk likes areas that have lots of open, dry land as well as some wetter, swampy areas. They sit on high branches where they can see over a great area. Cypress trees are tall and slender, perfect for the red tailed hawk. In the swampy parts of the cypress forest, the red-tailed hawk can find a high protein diet of crayfish (crawfish to some), frogs and some smaller fresh-water fish but red-tailed hawks prefer to hunt on land. The red-tailed hawk is a large hawk and will prey on animals as large as rabbits and squirrels but rodents such as rats and mice or other birds such as grackles are a favorite. Red- tailed hawks will eat reptiles too. In fact, lizards and snakes are a treat. The red-tailed hawk is also known as the hen hawk because they do like to prey on domestic chickens. Chickens are easy prey because they don’t have the "instinctual" fear that makes wild animals run and hide at the first sight of a hawk.

I live in the east everglades, the so called "river of grass" which really is a river 50 miles wide and 110 miles long. It is shallow, about three feet deep by January but by late May the river can be as low as two inches deep.

This is where we see the red-shouldered hawk.

The red-shouldered hawk is smaller than the red-tailed hawk. The red-shouldered hawk likes to live in areas that are mostly swampy while the red-tailed hawk likes areas of open dry land. Because the red-shouldered hawk is smaller, it likes to feed on smaller animals. Red-shouldered hawks will prey on rabbits and squirrels but would rather take down smaller game. Here in the east everglades, red-shouldered hawks like to feed on snakes. There are 27 different types of snakes in the everglades and this makes it easy for a red-shouldered hawk to feed his family.

The male hawks are always smaller than the females. The reason for this is simple. The female must stay at the nest and take care of the babies and protect them from predators. The female is big and tough; she will defend the nest at all cost. The male hawk is small and fast so that he can hunt better. The male is the breadwinner of the family and must hunt daily. About 60% to 70% of the food brought back to the nest would be snakes and lizards. He also collects rodents and small birds but he’s also tough, and will bring back things as big as rabbits and squirrels which are sometimes as big as he is. Because the red-shouldered hawk lives in the swampy areas he will often bring back crayfish, frogs and small fish.

With habitat loss and people moving into the areas where hawks live, there have been a lot of hawks spotted in the suburbs. My friend and fellow tour guide, Eloy Escagedo, went home one day to find his family in horror. Eloy lives west of Miami. As he returned home from work that day, his Aunt and Grandmother came to him in tears. They told him about this big bird that just moments ago, attacked their family parakeet and flew off with it. Eloy went out to the patio and saw the small birdcage on the ground and the door was still latched closed. He asked his aunt and grandmother what had happened. They told Eloy that they were looking out the kitchen window when the big bird flew onto the patio and knocked the small cage to the floor, forced its claw though the thin bars of the cage and ripped the small parakeet trough the bars. Before they could run outside to help, the bird flew away with the parakeet. Eloy’s Aunt and Grandmother were broken hearted over the loss of their family pet. They said the bird was more than twice the size of the pigeons that they often see. Its head was dark brown, and the rest of its back was brown. I would have to assume it was a red-shouldered hawk. I have often seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks close to a church by Eloy’s house. All I could tell Eloy’s family was that these kinds of situations were going become more common as people move ever closer to the everglades. There are lots of red-shouldered hawks around but they are on the endangered species list.

Although there are many types of hawks in the United States and they may not be an endangered species, they are protected under The Migratory Bird Act (A law concerning how humans should deal with or otherwise be concerned with migratory birds). As I see it, The Migratory Bird Act is not all it’s built up to be. Yes, it does protect many species of birds that need to be protected but, it has one very bad side to it. There can be no interaction "AT ALL" with any bird that is listed as a migratory bird. I don’t agree with that side of The Migratory Bird Act. While growing up in the everglades, my parents taught me to interact with the animals. The only rules I had were to be nice to them. My parents taught me that if you are "NICE" to the animals they "WILL" share the ecosystem with you. My parents taught me that I am nothing more than a human animal living in the world with the other animals. They told me to do my best to get along with the animals I meet. Scientists spend millions of our tax dollars on trying to figure out how to get along with animals in the wild. That’s a lot of money to learn to just be nice. We should spend that money on something that needs to be studied or spend it on the ecosystem. It shouldn’t cost millions of dollars to teach the world the "secret" of getting along with animals. The secret is "BE NICE TO THE ANIMALS". There are so many birds that I used to interact with while playing in the everglades. Now, because people who live in the city make most of the rules for us in the wilderness areas (there are more of them than us) I could be put in jail and fined for playing with my old friends. It breaks my heart to ignore the birds and the animals I have come to love. There are times the birds come to me and I have to turn the other way. I know it breaks their hearts too. The people that live in our wilderness areas should have more input on what should be done to help the areas. Oh folks, just because a person lives in the area and doesn’t have a "scientific degree" on the ecology of the ecosystem doesn’t mean they don’t know about the ecosystem. If you think about it, the people who have spent their whole life with the everglades for their backyard would know about their backyard better than someone who lives in the city. The migratory bird act "DID" save many species of birds from extinction, but it also forbids any interaction with the birds that were so much fun to interact with when Gatorman was younger. We all know the old saying; "too many cooks in the kitchen will spoil the broth!" Too many scientists in the everglades will spoil the everglades! Meanwhile, a person is not even allowed to have a feather from a bird of prey. Even the Native-Americans have to have permission to keep the raptor feathers they use in their traditional ceremonies. As usual, Gatorman has gotten a little off the subject so let me return to the story.

The interactions between hawks and man (legal or not) go way back to the days when hawks were used to catch food for the family dinner. Hawks are part of the raptor family of birds. Raptor means to catch and take away.

I sat down and interviewed one of my good friends, Ray Pena on the subject of hawks. Ray is a "Master falconer" (one who is licensed to own and breed birds of prey) and owns many birds of prey. He has a web site that you may find interesting. www.flightoftheraptor.com . Ray told me that hawks were used for hunting small game, like rabbits and squirrels. Before there were refrigerators, people needed to eat what they caught before it would spoil. Hawks were used to catch animals in the afternoon so there would be fresh meat to be cooked for dinner. This interaction with hawks has been passed down to this day. Ray explained to me, that he and his birds have formed a bond in helping each other. As babies, the birds depend on him to feed them. As the birds get older, he teaches them to hunt and catch food. Ray feeds and weighs his birds every day. If he feeds them too much, they may just sit there and look at him. A bird of prey that has a full stomach will not fly. The bird becomes so fat and heavy, they don’t want to fly. If the birds are not flying they are not getting exercise so Ray keeps them on a lean diet. Ray takes his birds out and releases them to fly everyday. He uses a decoy on a rope to get his birds of prey to come to him. His hawks will fly around while Ray swings a decoy that looks like a bird or a squirrel (depending on what you are training the hawk to hunt) around his body and then, the hawks will dive in to catch the decoy. If the hawk is successful in catching the decoy, it is rewarded with food. Ray has a great love for his birds and takes great care of them. I asked Ray if anyone can own a hawk. He said that "yes" anyone could own a hawk but there is a process that they have to go through. A person who wants to own a hawk has to take a test on common knowledge of hawks. Then, that person has to have two years of experience working with a "master falconer" like Ray. Then, the master falconer has to sign papers for you. At that time, you can go out and trap a hawk and start working with it. Yes, I said go out and trap a wild hawk. A person who wants to become a licensed falconer is required to catch their first bird in the wild rather than just buying it from a breeder because it proves they have enough knowledge of the birds and it prevents all of the captive birds from being related to each other which is not good for breeding. A person would have to really love hawks to devote two years of their life just to being allowed to own one.

I asked Ray Pena what a person should do if they see an injured bird of prey. He said that anyone is allowed to help the bird. They must cover the birds eyes with a cloth. Being careful not to let the bird of prey grab you with its claws. Then call the Florida Wildlife Commission (or the state wildlife agency in your own state, of course). They will come and get the bird from you and see that it gets proper care.

Well, I hope that everyone enjoyed my story this month. Thanks so much for reading my stories.

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