The extraordinary tale of how she raised 3 chicks on her own
Under normal circumstances hawks raise their young as a bonded pair. The amount of time and energy it takes to make the nest, incubate the eggs, feed the young and guard them from predators takes a huge toll on them. Ask any new human mom or dad and they will tell you how exhausting newborns are. They weave a tale of piercing screams sleepless nights and endless cleanups. For hawk parents with newborn chicks their tale is surprisingly similar as anyone who has ever been watching a nest can attest to.
Newborn hawk chicks sleep a lot the first few days of life but when they’re not sleeping they squawk for food, often pecking at their parents’ feet, legs and beaks in search of a tasty morsel. The endless flyovers by would be predators necessitates the need for at least one parent to be present and ready to fend off any threat to eggs or chicks. This means that only one parent goes off to hunt at a time while the other stands guard.
Cooper’s hawks are monogamous, and many pairs mate for life. The pair take turns incubating the eggs and bringing their mate food during this process. The male will choose the nest site, but it’s the female who does the majority of the nest-building. Their courtship activities include stylized flights with the wings held in a deep arc that look much like aerial ballet.
After about a month the eggs finally hatch and newborn chicks fill the nest. During this time the male brings food to the nest for the female while the female then feeds the chicks. This family feeding process continues for about five weeks when it’s time for the chicks to fledge. Though the chicks have just started to learn to fly and can’t sustain long flights they leave the nest at five weeks but remain very close by and will continue to be fed by the parents for another few weeks.
Many other bird species practice this life cycle where the chicks will fledge before they’re completely able to survive on their own but continue to be fed and guarded by the parents for several weeks. For small bird species like the Red-winged Blackbird this is done because the nest is just too small to accommodate three or four chicks past when they’re10 days old so they literally outgrow the home before they’re fully grown. The Bald Eagle chicks don’t fledge until they get their full flight feathers and can fly on their own often leaving forever once they fledge.
What makes this story so unique is that both parents were juveniles when they decided to nest and breed. Cooper’s Hawks come of age at 2 years old when their brown feathered coat has turned to grey and their gold eyes have turned red. This is how you can visually identify a juvenile from an adult. When I was told of a pair of Cooper’s Hawk nesting in Lake Worth I was thrilled at the prospect of finally getting to see one. Once a few photos were posted it was clear this was a pair of juveniles too young to be breeding or so we thought. Observers watched as they gathered sticks and seemed to be making a nest. Some wondered if this was a practice nest, of course birds don’t practice building nests which would be a waste of precious energy.
A couple of weeks went by with little activity. Then one day someone spotted one of the pair sitting low in the nest. They appeared to be ‘brooding’ which is when the bird sits low in the nest incubating eggs. This went on for about 30 days. Then one day we heard a squawk and knew the eggs had hatched. Even more amazing was the fact that only one of the pair was around. Large birds raise their young as a pair it’s too much work for one parent. The loss of a parent greatly increases the mortality rate for the chicks. We all thought this brood would be doomed….
More amazing than having two juveniles mate was the fact that the male parent left. This is a very developed urban area so not likely he was killed by a hunter or trapped. It was assumed that still being a juvenile he left on his own despite having the drive to breed before fully being of breeding age. While there have been many documented cases of hawks raising young as a single parent this was the exception since the parent was still herself a kid. Yet she stayed to raise her three young chicks to be healthy adult hawks.
Over the next five weeks several people came to watch and photograph this family and the amazing mom who seemed to defy the odds against them. The Cooper’s Hawk family of Lake Worth were true stars in the bird of prey world. As you can see in the photo below the mom, who is on the left side looks like her chicks. As the chicks quickly aged and shed their snowy white downy feathers for the brown feathers of juveniles it became very difficult to guess who was the adult and who were the chicks. She did an unbelievable job raising her young especially since hawk chicks are very demanding. She clearly was not going to give up.
Just what caused these two crazy young hawks to breed is a mystery. There is nothing documented about birds breeding before reaching maturity though at some point it must have happened. I wondered if there was a chemical cause since the nest was very near the Lake Worth Lagoon and two golf courses. The lagoon was historically a freshwater lake, but today is quite a polluted estuarine waterway.
Despite restoration projects that built man made islands that had been destroyed when early settlers arrived and despite restoring the oyster reef the lagoon is still a pretty toxic soup of chemicals. Oysters help filter and remove algae, pollutants and particulates from water flowing through their gills and help to improve water quality but it’s not enough to clean up this lagoon. After decades of pollution only so much can be done. Perhaps exposure to all these chemicals in the air the hawks breathe and the food they consume had an effect on them allowing them to breed before being adults. Just this year in March 2021 there was a precautionary boil water notice issued by the City of Lake Worth Beach Water Utilities potable water distribution system.
We all know how notorious golf courses are for using pesticides such as the deadly Roundup by Monsanto and 2,4-D which is part of the chemical compound used to make Agent Orange that poisoned so many in Viet Nam. Golf courses also use far more pesticides and herbicides than the agriculture industry. Furthermore the Cooper’s hawk population, especially in the eastern United States, was greatly reduced in the mid 1950s due to the use of the pesticide DDT. Perhaps this species is more susceptible to toxic exposure or perhaps this was just an anomaly.
This nest was near both the polluted lagoon and a golf course, another golf course butted up against the lagoon on the eastern side. Whether or not all these areas saturated with toxins affected this particular hawk pair we will never know. It stands to reason we should at least wonder about this oddity because like so many other things it could be another warning sign by mother nature that the natural world is no longer able to function as it should. We ignore these warning signs at our peril.