Thursday, April 30, 2015

Red-tailed hawk growth and development in the nest

Eaglets aren't the only thing growing right now! The two eyas red-tailed hawks at Eaglecrest are morphing into adults right before our eyes. Like bald eagles, different parts of their bodies grow at different times and different rates, reflecting developmental priorities and impacting behavior. How will hawks EC2 and EC3 (also known as Speckle and Snickers on the Eaglecrest Wildlife facebook page) grow?

  • 0-7 days: the culmen achieves maximum growth. Red-tailed hawks hatch with a culmen (the dorsal ridge of the upper mandible) that is about 30% of the maximum size it is likely to achieve in the nest. During a red-tailed hawk's first week of life, its already large culmen nearly doubles in length, going from an average of 6.9 mm in length to an average of 12.3 mm in length. Since the consumption of food is the root of all else besides, the hawk's food-consuming apparatus is given developmental priority. While the culmen continues to grow after week one, its rate of growth slows dramatically, becoming almost flat by week five. Bald eagles follow a similar pattern, although they have almost twice the growing time in the nest that red-tailed hawks do and their developmental milestones reflect that.  
  • 7-14 days: third toe and tarsus achieve maximum growth. Eating has priority, but movement isn't too far behind. A young hawk needs to move to build muscle and feed once it is past the point where Mom and Dad simply stuff food into its waiting mouth. In the second week of life, a red-tailed hawk's third toe and tarsus are given developmental priority. The third toe is the real stand out here, nearly doubling in length from 16.9 to 27.9 millimeters. With longer toes and thicker, longer tarsi, the hawks are better able to sit up, move around the nest on their feet and knees, and interact with one another. We see a similar pattern with bald eagles, who reach asymptotic mid-toe and tarsus size about half-way through their nestling period - 40 days, in their case. 
  • 14 to 21 days: body weight achieves maximum growth. With food intake well in hand, young hawks gain weight rapidly. While they've been growing all along, weight gain is the biggest actor in week three. The young hawks spend a great deal of time eating and sleeping as their weight increases. 
  • 21 to 24 days: weight gains decline, independence increases. During the fourth week, weight gain declines, the nestling hawks begin feeding independently, and feather growth takes over. The hawks have the strength and physical structures they need to stand upright on their feet, manipulate food, and feed on their own. At about day 24, the length of primary seven overtakes weight as the best indicator of age.  At this point, fledge is just two or three weeks away. 
  • 24 to 35 days: Feathers take front and center. As fledge comes closer, developmental energy is channeled into growing feathers. The primaries enter their maximum growth phase during weeks four and five, the two weeks prior to fledging. The young hawks will also be growing sub-adult feathers elsewhere, including their backs, their tails (which won't become red until molt two, in their second year of life), and their chests. 
  • 36 to 44 days: Time to fly! Feather growth will slow, but the growth of flight-related muscles is happening in leaps and bounds. Wingercizing will take front and center stage as they young hawks practice for the big event by flapping, wing-hopping, hovering, and eventually taking flight! 
Both red-tailed hawks and bald eagles allocate developmental energy into producing weight and structure first (day 0 to day 24), and feathers second (day 24 onward). While feathers often seem light and simple, these two distinct periods of growth point to the incredible amount of energy needed to produce a proper 'coat' of feathers. Enjoy the hawks now, since they will be leaving the nest soon. It takes just 44-46 days to grow a red-tailed hawk from hatchling to fledgling! 

Did you know?
Red-tailed hawks are excellent falconry birds. While their are many excellent falconry organizations, I'm most familiar with NAFA. Interested in falconry? Follow this link:

1 comment:

birdbirdbird said...

Thanks for this! I'm following a pair of hawks nesting on an air conditioner in NYC and their hatchlings just hatched! Great to learn what to expect over the next 6 weeks or so. Check out to see them!