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Empty nest syndrome

Cooper's hawk

I suppose, from the moment this spring when the pair of Cooper's hawks arrived in our front yard and began building a nest in the tallest eucalyptus tree, it was inevitable. I noticed them when I was on my morning stroll with Juliett, our Mojave Sand Leopard. They seemed to be evaluating our yard for its suitability for nesting, and they were taking it seriously. Juliett climbed the second-highest tree and immediately, they buzzed her - aggressive, but not an outright attack. That would come later.

I shared this news with my wife, and we verified they were Cooper's hawks, and began looking into what it meant to have hawks nesting close to your home. On a pseudo-spiritual level, the arrival of hawks is a very good omen, though evidently, the bigger the hawk, the better the luck, so with Cooper's hawks being smaller than their Red-tailed cousins, we were due for moderately decent luck.

But on the other hand, there was a lot of discussion online about how to rid yourself of hawk nests, talk of how bothersome and aggressive they can be, attacking pets, and even humans. Stories about them rampaging about neighborhoods attacking old people during nesting are common. One neighborhood began carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from attacks from the sky. In England, birds of prey have become status pets, and an increase in attacks on people are linked to semi-domesticated status pets that escape or are abandoned. Sure, walking around with a Red-tailed hawk on your arm looks cool and you can fancy yourself with a bit part in Game of Thrones or something, but in Realityville, owning a large bird of prey is a very serious responsibility. Go get a gerbil if you aren't up to the task.

We had no intention of driving the hawks from their chosen nesting site, despite the fact it towers over our entire front yard, including access to and from the house. Instead, I brought up some wire fencing and placed it around the three front trees to prevent Juliett from attempting to go up and after the hawks, thus preventing some opportunities for hawk-feline conflict 20 to 30 feet up in the air where I couldn't intervene. We didn't want the hawks to feel threatened, and we didn't want to have to take Juliett to emergency surgery at the veterinary hospital in Banning.

Male Cooper's hawk

As the nest took shape, we got more used to having the hawks around. Juliett and I quickly learned that they weren't just concerned about her climbing the trees right where the nest was located, but rather any tree on the property. She was dive-bombed while climbing a Joshua tree, and the fruitless mulberry, but the olive trees seemed to be difficult for the hawks to navigate an attack through.

Some days our hawk couple (we had accepted them and thought of them as "ours" in a loose, non-colonialist way, of course) would be very active in their preparations, while on other days, we'd wonder if they had abandoned the whole enterprise. But no, they were dedicated, and soon it was clear there were eggs present - babies in waiting!

Male Cooper's hawk in Joshua tree.

It became clear that the babies were hatching by the behavior of our new parents. They became increasingly protective of their nest - buzzing us frequently while we were outside. While the male was the most aggressive, both parents were anything but shy in their efforts to ensure we understood this was now their home. They would fly directly at me, head level, and then pull up quickly and zoom just over my head. It became a little unnerving, but they're so beautiful to watch that I began to enjoy the fly-bys. Juliett, on the other hand, began to be attacked - not buzzed - while just padding about on the ground. I had to intervene a couple times because even when she was attacked, her natural response was to try to catch the hawk. Don't mess with Mojave Sand Leopards!

And then, there they were - four adorable, clumsy, perpetually hangry little Cooper's hawks. All the hassle was worth it!

As the babies entered their fledging stage, where their baby down was replaced with feathers that would allow them to take to the skies and fly, the parents became their most aggressive. And not without cause. The babies are extremely vulnerable as they begin to leave the nest to explore the world and try out their wings.

Juliett and I began to spend more time on other parts of our property instead of the front yard. With two acres of desert to explore, we could give the nest a pretty wide berth and still have lots of room to wander. But the hawks decided even the backyard was too close to the nest. While the buzzing continued, one morning, as I was leaning on the fence watching Juliett look for lizards in our small herb garden, the male hawk attacked me, hitting the back of my head at high speed. Cooper's hawks can reach speeds of 60 miles per hour with ease, so when it hit my head, it not only drew blood on my scalp, but it felt as if it may have caused a mild concussion. Things were getting serious.

The only ones who never appeared to be afraid of the hawks were the hummingbirds, who loved to hover in front of the parents to scold them.

Male Cooper's hawk

Female Cooper's hawk

The male and female parents on their perch of preference on the back portion of our property.

I would set my video camera up on tripod each morning to capture some of the activity that took place in the nest as the babies grew. I'm still editing all that footage, but it will arrive on this page at some point. I had a little talk with the parents about attacking us and interestingly enough, they returned to their previous patterns of daredevil fly-bys instead of full contact sports. I made a point of letting them know when Juliett and I were out for our walk, and attacks on her stopped, but most of the credit for that decline goes to Juliett who became more cautious. Still, if she dashed after a bunny when the hawks were nearby, they would swoop down after her. Evidently, they didn't want competition for any potential food source for those hangry little hawks waiting back in the nest.

Safe under the barbecue!

Eventually, the babies began hopping out onto nearby branches and flapping their wings. They were completely adorable in their hawkish way. And then - one baby hawk landed on the ground to begin exploring the world.

It came right up to the front door (almost too much for Juliett to bear), and it being a hot day, I thought it might need water, so I went out and turned the water on. It went and got a good, long drink. I was worried as the babies began leaving the tree. One wandered out into the road and I chased it back onto the property. I didn't want a passing F-150 to smash our baby!

The babies were so adorable, and fun to watch as they clumsily learned to fly. But it was clear that they were extremely vulnerable, and then... they began to disappear.


While it became harder to keep track of the hawks as they left the nest, my best count is that we lost two of the four babies to predators. But, I assured myself, I could be wrong. While I was pretty sure we had lost at least one, I thought maybe another could just have flown off. After time, however, it seems that there is one male and one female that survived from the original four babies.

Gradually, they would leave the nest for longer periods of time, returning in the evening at first. The parents too, were frequently absent for a day or two at a time.

Young Cooper's hawk

Young Cooper's hawk

And then... they didn't return to the nest, the nest that they had spent so much of their short lives in and around. They had ridden out crazy wind storms in that nest, peering out or trying to stand while pieces of the nest detached and scattered around the yard. Now, it sits empty. The babies and their parents are still around, and I usually see or hear at least one of them daily when Juliett and I go for our walks.

The distinct calls of the males and females are still heard, sometimes close, sometimes some distance away. Not long ago the young female hawk was perched on top of the telephone pole her mother had so often kept watch from over the desert. I may be wrong, but it seems like the young hawks who had so often watched us with their little cotton ball heads peering over the side of the nest, seem fairly comfortable around us. Not likely to voluntarily become status pets anytime soon, but that's a good thing. I want them to be wild - wild things should be, after all. But their flights are so beautiful and graceful that I love seeing them, so if they feel like they can drop by the old nest once in a while and swoop low over Juliett and I as we scout for lizards, I'll be grateful.

Just before all the babies left the nest for good, the daddy hawk once again zoomed in and grazed the top of my head (no wonder I'm going bald). But he didn't hit me hard, nor did he draw blood. It really seemed more like a bit of hawk humor - letting me know he got me again, before they all moved on. It really seemed like, in his own hawkish way, he was saying goodbye.

I miss all the hustle and bustle of half a dozen hawks around the nest. Juliett has returned to climbing trees, and I've removed the wire fencing from around all the trees except the largest - the one that holds the empty nest. I left that fencing, not to protect hawks, but rather to protect Juliett. The tree has extremely loose bark and it doesn't seem safe for her to climb. I don't need an overly curious Mojave Sand Leopard missing a leap from branch to branch (she's very acrobatic in her climbing), and falling 30 feet. Do they land on their feet? Sometimes. I'd rather not find out (that she needs another expensive surgery).

But while Juliett is regaining dominion over the property, as is just and right, I still watch and listen for the familiar presence of our hawks. I am proud we somehow all coexisted on this property and should one of the babies (or the parents) choose to return next spring to refurbish the old nest (which I'm certain desperately needs refurbishing after all it went through) and raise another generation of Cooper's hawks here, they'll be welcomed (well, by us, anyway - I'm sure the doves and antelope squirrels, bunnies, and even the hummingbirds would prefer they went elsewhere).

Baby mourning dove

The baby mourning doves can come out now!

Good luck baby hawks!

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