Friday, October 25, 2013

Red-Tailed Hawks and Social Play

Eaglecrest facilitator mochamamma has captured several videos of young red-tailed hawks squabbling, chasing, and stealing food from one another.
At first we thought they might be nest mates – although Stitch and Spot hatched just one young hawk, there are other nests in the area. But as the hawks piled up – three, four, five, eight – it became increasingly clear they weren’t related. What was going on?

We had a couple of ideas. Eaglecrest’s pond is a hot spot for local wildlife. Well over 30 species of animals have been captured on camera, including reptiles, amphibians, several mammals, and many birds. Large concentrations of raptors have been recorded at watering holes in Africa, Australia, the American Southwest, and other arid places. The young hawks at Eaglecrest were probably drawn in from the surrounding area by the pond’s abundant food and water supplies. But are they competing for limited resources or engaging in play and social interaction? Maybe a bit of both is happening.

I tend to think of red-tailed hawks as fairly solitary creatures. They chose a mate, build a nest, and defend their territory from interlopers, including other red-tailed hawks. But researcher Charles Preston observed red-tailed hawks in winter communal roosts of four to six members. These roosts sometimes included ferruginous hawks and at least one was close to a large communal roost of bald eagles.  Red-tailed hawks will also concentrate in higher numbers based on prey availability, which is probably why I start noticing them in larger numbers mid-fall. Like many other birds, red-tailed hawks are far less territorial when they aren’t breeding, although it might be a stretch to call them social. Yet juvenile red-tailed hawks engage in social play.

Play is well-documented among juvenile red-tailed hawks. They have been observed playing with inanimate objects like rocks and sticks – stalking them on the ground, pouncing on them, and dropping and catching them in flight. Play seems to have evolved in most species that provide prolonged periods of parental care, and red-tailed hawks are no exception. As Charles Preston notes, the young birds “may gradually broaden their range of hunting methods and increase their skills by learning from their parents or other red-tailed hawks.”

The young red-tailed hawks at Eaglecrest chase one another, steal prey, and mock fight. They spread their wings, assume striking poses, mantle food, stalk through the undergrowth, and wrestle, pinning each other down before walking away. It is interesting to speculate that this ‘flocking’ behavior might help the young, inexperienced hunters capture food, even if they risk having it stolen out from under them. More eyes are more likely to find food, especially when the hunters are young and inexperienced. The sheer number of young hawks might help flush prey out, although any successful hunter will need to defend his or her dinner against the rest. Although the pond is a rich environment, the young hawks are still learning to hunt and compete for prey. A little musing: we know the hunting skills they acquire will help them procure food. Will social skills like posturing and wrestling help them acquire mates and defend territory from other red-tailed hawks?

Presumably, our hawks will spend several weeks together honing hunting, social, and other survival skills prior to dispersal (or forced eviction by adult residents). I hope the skills they have acquired through social play will help them survive.

We still don’t know how common this kind of aggregation is, although I intend to do more reading and research in the weeks to come. Is this common outside of hot spots like the Eaglecrest pond? I have no idea. More questions: we have watched young eagles and vultures play, although those birds were pre-fledging. How does pre-fledging play inform post-fledging play? How is play different and alike in different species? Do parents play with young? Why is play so prevalent in juveniles? These are worthy and important questions to ask. Even TED plays attention to the importance of play:
So get out and play!