Soaring Is A Signal

Red-tailed hawk soaring, 2013 (photo by Cris Hamilton)

3 March 2022

In March red-tailed hawks conspicuously soar over western Pennsylvania. They take to the skies alone or in pairs to soar and dive and dangle talons. Sometimes they even scream.

What is all this soaring about? It’s a multi-purpose signal.

Pair of red-tailed hawks soaring (photo by Melissa McMasters via Wikimedia Commons)

Soaring is part of hunting and migration of course, but in the spring it’s a way to claim territory, advertise availability to potential mates, and cement the pair bond.

What better way to tell other red-tailed hawks that a territory is already taken than by soaring above it? Adults do this alone and in pairs. Unwelcome red-tails are escorted away. “This is mine!”

A lone red-tail also soars to advertise for a mate saying, “This is mine and I need a mate to share it.” (I have no idea how they signal the difference between ‘stay away’ and ‘come here.’)

Before the female lays eggs pairs of red-tailed hawks soar to cement their pair bond.

Prenesting displays typically consist of both birds soaring in wide circles at high altitudes and the male performing maneuvers similar to the Sky-dance [in which the] bird dives steeply from high altitude, checks descent and shoots immediately upward at similarly steep angle.

After several series of dives and ascents, the male slowly approaches the female from above, extends his legs and touches or grasps her momentarily. Frequently, both birds dangle their legs during aerial maneuvers. The birds may grasp one another’s beak or interlock talons and spiral toward the ground. Piercing screams and quiet, raspy calls often accompany courtship flight displays.

Birds of the World: Courtship displays of the Red-tailed Hawk
A pair of red-tailed hawks dangles talons in a courtship display in Santa Barbara (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

In the video below you’ll see a pair soaring, dropping talons, and persuading a third bird to leave.

For red-tailed hawks soaring is a signal.

(photos by Cris Hamilton and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

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