[dfads params='groups=4969&limit=1&orderby=random']

RECREATION & TRAVEL: Swainson’s Hawks: Beautiful bullies of the bird world


swainson's hawk in flight


Contributing Writer

Swainson’s Lane is one of the most awesome places on earth. Okay, I named it Swainson’s Lane and it’s only awesome to me. But, it is indeed awesome to me.
Swainson’s Lane is where my hawks lay eggs and raise young. Calling them my hawks is a bit of a stretch but I’ve been watching the same pair of Swainson’s hawks for the past eight years. They are in a remote spot and I am one of few people who know they’re there. I spoke to the landowner last year and he didn’t even know about them. I won’t divulge the exact location because there are unscrupulous people out there who wish to do raptors (probably anything) harm.
I first wrote about these hawks in October of 2014. At that time they were preparing to migrate. Swainson’s hawks are snowbirds, going all the way to Argentina to spend the winter. Their migration is the furthest of any raptor. In October it’s possible (at least if you’re in Panama) to see hundreds of Swainson’s hawks in a day on their flight south.
But I digress. The spot these hawks come to spend the summer and raise young has three groups of trees just a few hundred feet apart. There were nests in all three groups of trees. The largest of the nests, in the northeast group of trees is gone. This pair of Swainson’s hawks used that nest for years. Then in 2013 they used a nest in the south group of trees. They did that even though they had to take the big nest back from a Ferruginous hawk in 2012. Maybe they just decided to give the Ferruginous hawk the big nest.
Since the big nest went missing the Swainson’s have been using a nest in the West tree.
Actually, the Ferruginous hawk may have built the big nest several years ago. It was a large, intricate nest, similar to an Eagle nest. Ferruginous hawks are famous for building such nests. In contrast, Swainson’s build small sloppy nests and more often than not use a nest built by other birds, even if they have to take it. Great horned Owls often do the same thing.
Swainson’s hawks are the bullies of the Buteo genus. The Buteos genus includes Red-tailed, Ferruginous, and Rough-legged hawks. Those are the four Buteos common in the Intermountain West. There are others, but they are seldom seen in this area.

Smaller, but aggressive

Swainson’s are the most aggressive of the four Buteos, even though they are also the smallest of the four. Swainson’s are often 30 percent smaller than the much larger Ferruginous hawk. Yet, they will not shy away from a fight and have been known to chase other raptors from a nest. They have been known to kill much larger birds that dare to confront them. They have even been known to raid the nest of a Great horned Owl. That is significant, since Great horned Owls are also very aggressive and have been known to do the same thing to other raptors. Nature can be a formidable place.
Last Wednesday the Swainson’s hadn’t yet made it back from Argentina. I waited for hours to see them, until almost dark. They never showed. But, I am a day or two early. Instead, a Red-tailed Hawk had taken possession of the nest in the west tree.
Like clockwork, the Swainson’s arrived on Thursday. A 5,000 mile migration and they end up in the same remote spot in Utah on the same day. Stop and think about that. They travel over 5,000 miles and show up within a few hours of one another. And they don’t have a GPS or Mapquest!

Happy reunion

The Swainson’s don’t seem to be bothered that the nest is being guarded by two Red-tails, since the mate also showed up on Thursday. The Swainson’s spend the day hunting and flying around, apparently happy to be back together after months of separation.
Friday came and went much like Thursday, the Red-tails still at the nest. The Swainson’s are still in the area, flying together and hunting.
My ADD finally took it’s toll and I have to move on to other adventures. Perhaps the Swainson’s just conceded the nest to the Red-tails, but I don’t think so.
This is how I envision the encounter, which probably occurred on Saturday or Sunday: The Swainson’s will start flying in huge circles, so high in the sky you can barely see them. Then they will start down, slowing getting closer to the tree and to the Red-tails. Their loops will become much tighter and the Red-tails will become agitated. They will fly a short distance from the tree, then return, then do it again.

Blood curdling

Then will come the unmistakeable scream of the Swainson’s hawk. Blood curdling. Dracula himself would be frightened. The two will come toward the tree, the loops becoming ever tighter. Occasionally one will scream. The Red-tails will crouch, then jump up and flap their wings. Then, very quickly, the confrontation will be over. The Red-tails will know better than to stay and fight. They will take off as if on an express to Paris. They will not be coming back.
The Swainson’s won’t follow. And just like that, the drama will be over. There will be no celebration. They just did what had to be done. Of course all this is just conjecture on my part. I can’t wait to get back to see if I’m right.
I envy Swainson’s hawks. Imagine what they see during a year — and they have no passport and no visa. They fear nothing and are subject only to the laws of nature. There is no bureaucracy in the Swainson’s world.
Of course, their migration is fraught with danger. They must eat nearly everyday. That means finding prey along the route, every day. They must avoid cities, power lines, and people with guns. Eight years and 80,000 miles is a long time for everything to go right.
One of these years one of the hawks won’t return. That’s inevitable. That will be a sad day.

[dfads params='groups=1745&limit=1&orderby=random']
scroll to top