Syracuse University Red-Tailed Hawk Family

comparison of 3 adults

Comparison of the three adults: SU-Sue (left), Otto (middle), SUNY (right), Fall 2016.  (Photos by Anne Marie Higgins)

The Unique Red-Tailed Hawk Family at Syracuse University

Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) normally mate for life and are monogamous, however, there is a unique hawk family at Syracuse University—in 2016, three adults (one male and two females) tended one nest. The male is named Otto, the primary female who spends the most time with Otto is known as SU-Sue (pronounced Soo-Soo), and the second female's name is SUNY (pronounced Soo-Nee). Red-tailed hawks are not known to cooperatively nest like some other species of hawks, such as Harris's hawks. But the SU trio certainly seemed to be "cooperating" during 2016.

Adult red-tailed hawk color patterns are highly variable, but their basic appearance is consistent with a whitish chest with a brown to cinnamon-colored bellyband across their mid-line. Their back feathers are usually brown and may include some white. The characteristic brick-red tail gives the species its name.

The feather color patterns of Otto and SU-Sue are quite similar and it can be difficult to tell them apart. Otto's head and bellyband feathers are light brown to cinnamon-colored while SU-Sue's head and bellyband is a darker brown. Otto's chest often appears to have cinnamon streaks while SU-Sue's chest is more uniformly white. SUNY's head and bellyband feathers are brown but not as dark as SU-Sue's. Also, SUNY's bellyband is much wider than that of the other two. All three have brown back feathers with white mixed in, and Otto's cinnamon coloring often shows through to help distinguish him. Female red-tails are larger than males, but SU-Sue is only slightly larger than Otto, whereas, SUNY is noticeably bigger than Otto, which is more typical.

three parents

The three adults, including two females, are each visible in this photo, May 2016.  (Photo by Brian McLaughlin)

Another unique aspect of the 2016 nest was that there were six chicks in the nest who were successfully raised by this adult trio. While there is no way to know for sure, the most likely scenario would be that each female laid three eggs in the same nest, as it would be highly unusual for one female to produce six eggs. There is a photograph of Otto and SU-Sue mating, however, no photographic record of mating behavior between Otto and SUNY exists, so it isn't known if another male was involved, or if all six are the progeny of Otto.

six chicks

All six of the nestlings—known as "eyasses"—hatched from eggs laid in a single nest, May 2016.  (Photo by Brian McLaughlin)

Hawks usually do not breed until their third year of life. It is not known how old each of the adult hawks is, but if they are the same pair who nested on Link Hall in 2011, then Otto and SU-Sue would be at least 9 years old this year (2017). There is no way to determine SUNY's age, but if she did produce offspring in 2016, then she would be at least 4 years old. Hawks have been known to live for 20 years or more in the wild, and even longer in captivity.

Hawks are referred to as juveniles from the time that they fledge (leave the nest) until they develop their adult red-tail plumage in their second year of life. Juvenile red-tailed hawk color patterns are variable but they usually have a peach or whitish chest, brown bellybands, and brown barred patterns on their tails. Their back feather colors are similar to the adults. Both adult and juvenile feathers need to be replaced each year due to wear and tear. The process where birds lose old feathers which are replaced by new ones is referred to as "molting;" this usually occurs during the Summer and is completed in the Fall.

juvenile showing displaying wing and tail feathers

One of the juveniles from the 2016 brood displays its characteristic banded tail in a protective "mantling" stance over its prey.  Juveniles from the 2016 brood should have their red-tails by the end of Summer 2017.  (Photo by Cynthia Sedlacek)

Parents feed the juveniles in what is known as "prey drops" for several months after they fledge. During this same time period, the parents teach the "juvies" how to hunt on their own. They also teach their young how to break sticks off of trees to use in nest building.

Otto teaching nest building to juvenile

Only two weeks after fledging, Otto shows juvenile hawk how to break twigs for nest building.  (Photo by Anne Marie Higgins)

A hawk's hunting territory is usually 1.5 to 2 square miles. Juveniles have to find their own territory after the parents complete their training, which usually occurs in the late Fall. As of March 2017, the most recent time that any of the SU juveniles were seen was in late December 2016 in nearby Oakwood Cemetery when 2 juvies were spotted, along with a parent who was nearby with prey. Parental feedings this late in the season is a rarely observed behavior, however, new things are being learned as people continue to closely monitor this group of hawks.

Observers can look forward to witnessing the 2017 red-tailed hawk family 24/7—from egg laying to fledging—via the newly installed birds-eye-view nest cam, which includes infrared nighttime viewing capability. It is hoped that the data acquired from the nest cam will not only answer questions from the past, but also add new information to the continuously unfolding and fascinating story of this unique hawk family.

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