Conserve Wildlife Blog

A New Jersey First: Hawk Raised by Eagles

August 16th, 2022

By: Susan Harrison, NJ Bald Eagle Project Volunteer

I am a volunteer eagle nest monitor for New Jersey’s Bald Eagle Project. A new nest was discovered in central New Jersey this year by birder Chris Brown. Larissa Smith, the volunteer coordinator for the Bald Eagle Project and Conserve Wildlife Foundation asked me to monitor this nest. I did not know at the beginning of nesting season, what an interesting story would unfold!
In mid-April, by watching the behavior of the adult eagles, I could see that eggs had hatched and that the adults were feeding eaglets that were still too small to see. At the beginning of May I caught glimpses of the head of one eaglet peeking up over the top of the nest rails. Too cute! By the end of May, I could see the head of a second chick in the nest. But this chick looked very different! I soon discovered this chick looked different because it was not a Bald Eagle at all! It was a red-tailed hawk chick in the eagles’ nest! I could not believe what I was seeing! I took lots of photos to document this situation, a first for New Jersey! I consulted with two respected birders in the state, Chris Brown, who is a county eBird reviewer and Tim Brown, to help verify and document my observations for CWF and the NJ DEP/ENSP. We observed the adult eagles feeding both the red-tailed hawk chick and the bald eagle chick. It was one big happy family, with both chicks getting along with each other and with the adults quite well.

How did this red-tailed hawk chick end up in an eagles’ nest? Biologists in New Jersey assumed that the hawk chick was taken from its own nest and brought in as prey—destined to be food for the eaglet. Yet it survived the trip in the eagle parent’s talons and as soon as it was set down in the eagles’ nest it began begging for food, beak wide open, squealing persistently. Hearing this cry and seeing a little beak open and begging, the eagle parents’ nurturing instincts took over and they began to feed it as if it was one of their own. Although this is the first documented case in New Jersey of a red-tailed hawk chick being raised by bald eagle parents, it is apparently more common than one might think. There are stories online and videos on YouTube of little hawks being fostered by eagles. For me, watching my new nest, it was amazing! Truly an unforgettable experience!

By the middle of June, the little hawk was no longer visible in the nest, and by the end of June the eagle chick had fledged. Since I had not seen the hawk fledge, I went back under the nest area immediately to see if perhaps it had fallen out of the nest. I combed the area for a while but could not find anything on the ground.  My assumption, then was that the hawk, like its foster eagle sibling, had flown off the nest. However, I was still seeing the fledgling eagle flying around the area so it was somewhat troubling that the little hawk seemed to have completely disappeared.
I noticed that a portion of the right side of the nest was starting to collapse, so several weeks after my first search, I went back and searched directly underneath the nest area. This time I made a sad discovery–the remains of a Red-tailed Hawk chick. It looked like it might have fallen out of the nest at the point where the nest was collapsing. I immediately reported my finding to our supervisors, Kathy Clark and Larissa Smith as well as to our eagle vet, Dr. Erica Miller, who studied the photo of the remains.
 Dr. Miller offered several scenarios: That the hawk had either accidentally been pushed out of the nest, or the hawk tried to follow the eagle chick when it fledged. Unfortunately, the condition of the remains prevented a definite analysis. I doubt we will ever know the true story but this experience reinforces the knowledge that nature is harsh, and survival in the wild is difficult. But it also reinforces a happier fact: That the instinct to nurture little ones can often transcend species. Nature is full of wonder and miracles if we just take the time to look.

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3 Responses to “A New Jersey First: Hawk Raised by Eagles”

  1. Freda Karpf says:

    Thank you so much for this story. It is a great one even though it had a sad ending. It sounds like all the surmises you share are very likely. I appreciate knowing this took place and the persistence you had in following through.

  2. Clare Luisi says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful story! I can only imagine your surprise when first you realized your nest had an unexpected visitor. I so wish the little guy had survived but as you said Nature as beautiful as it is can be pretty rough. Best wishes for another exciting and successful nesting season

  3. Marianne Coyle says:

    Thanks so much for this article. Volunteering at Duke Gardens provides questions and experience. Friends have spoken about this a lot. Now we have the ‘nature/natural’ ending.

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