Wild Capitol Hill: Hawks make Hill their home

It’s easy to forget that wildlife can survive, let alone thrive in an urban environment, but cooper’s hawks and other raptors can be seen flying around Capitol Hill on any given day.

“You can see them flying all over Capitol Hill,” said Kevin Purcell, local scientist, programmer and bird-enthusiast. Check out his blog, which he plans to update with local falcon and hawk news this season. “They’re predators so their numbers are much smaller than the animals they predate on but they are willing to fly around to look for their prey.”

According to Purcell, cooper’s and red-tailed hawks are visible on the Hill during spring, and sometimes a sharp-shinned hawk and other falcons can be seen in the winter. They’ve recently been spotted in Volunteer Park. To pick one out of the sky, look for a bird about the shape of a crow with a very long tail. While pigeons and crows flap in shorter spurts, hawks glide and soar through the air, which also makes them easier to pick out.

“Broadway in the morning (and surrounding couple of blocks to the east) is one the best places to see Coops fly against the pigeon flocks in the Hill,” said Purcell. “One regular area for me is one block west of Broadway. There are group of Deodar Cedars and one block away a very tall Sitka Spruce. They can watch the pigeon flock that hangs out on Broadway.”

Discarded fast food makes the urban environment very “productive,” said Purcell. It attracts the pigeons and in turn, hawks. It’s an interesting example of urban habitat that hawks have adjusted to. Hawks “perch and ambush,” and the local crows try to get rid of them by “dive bombing” and calling loudly.

“Any time you hear a group of angry crows, look carefully and see what the source of the annoyance is,” said Purcell. “It’s likely to be well hidden but it could be a hawk, or an owl or a raccoon in the top of a tree.”

Bird lovers who want to attract hawks should keep their gardens a bit disheveled. A favorite hawk snack is the songbird, which is drawn to thickets of vines and brambles. Caterpillars are a favorite songbird snack, so adding them to the mix welcomes nature in to your backyard.

“These birds prey on other birds, so preserving the urban habitat of other birds, particularly songbirds and small mammals, is essential,” said Purcell.

When asked about their nesting locations, Purcell told CHS that he couldn’t disclose the ones he’s found.

“There are folks out there who will kill hawks,” said Purcell. “They are mostly pigeon fanciers. It’s happened in the PNW before, so hawk watchers are reluctant to make locations public.”

Some of the biggest hawk predators are “roller pigeon” enthusiasts. They breed these pigeons for a genetic disorder that makes them stall and seizure mid-flight, then tumble into acrobatic stunts through the air before falling to the ground. Local clubs throughout the United States compete to see whose birds tumble best. Hawks prey on these pigeons because they are an easy kill, so pigeon enthusiasts hunt hawks and falcons to protect their birds.

Audubon Magazine published an expose on “Operation High Roller,” and the issue got local attention in 2008 when a local bust uncovered the murder of 2,000 hawks a year in Pierce County.

Killing a migratory bird such as a hawk or falcon is a misdemeanor, and Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks and peregrine falcons are all protected by international treaty.

To learn more about hawks and falcons in the PNW, check out theSeattle Audubon and the Washington Ornithological Society, or WOS. Both offer a range of activities from bird watching to hawk activism. The Falcon Research Group is interested in falcons, specifically, and Tweeters is a mail listing hub that connects birders all over Western Washington.

Locally, falcons and hawks are followed and noted by citizen scientist Jack Bettesworth. He bands the hawks with a distinctive blue “visual ID” tag on their legs. This tag has a two letter identifier and allows people to identify and track birds without capturing them. If you record which leg the tag is on, it also indicates the sex of the bird. If you see a perched hawk (especially if you photograph it) check for the blue tag and report the sighting to Jack. (We’ll update this post shortly with Jack’s contact info — just need to square away the correct address). Jack can be reached through the WOS website, which lists his number and email. 

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11 thoughts on “Wild Capitol Hill: Hawks make Hill their home

  1. My son and I were walking down our block the other day and out of the corner of my eye I saw an explosion of feathers in a neighbor’s front yard. We looked over and a hawk had just knocked a pigeon out of the air into the ground. The pigeon then flew away, with the hawk in pursuit, followed by a couple of crows chasing the hawk. It was so cool!

  2. The information you found on the roller pigeons and hawk killings is fascinating. I’ve never heard of this and I’ve been a casual hawk fan all my life.

    A hawk regularly hangs out on a light standard on the 520 bridge. The light standard is on the north side and just east of the lilypads. You can see the hawk best when heading east.

  3. I was driving across the 520 in February and saw a Bald Eagle on one of the light posts. It was amazing!

    Last week driving home from work I was waiting at the light just past the U Bridge to go up the Hill, and a hawk flew right in front of us with a pigeon in it’s beak. It took me a moment to realize what I had just seen. I felt bad for the pigeon. :(

  4. I live downtown, and last weekend my cat freaked out when a hawk landed on the ledge outside my window. I think there are still feathers from the sparrow it had in its talons out there.

  5. I saw one of these Coops in my tree last spring before the leaves came in. I spent half the morning trying to match the picture to the WOS website’s list of birds.
    I love seeing these birds and all the other wildlife the neighborhood has to offer.

  6. Hawks are the ‘cool’ that people in little red convertibles try to be. :)
    My favorite raptors are the hawks and I used to see them everywhere in eastern WA. Glad to know they call Capitol Hill home.

  7. I’m all for hawks, but last month a red tailed hawk made off with one of my chickens! It was kind of upsetting at the time, but I got over it. Hawks 1, chickens 0

  8. Just the information I was interested in! Last week I took a picture of one on the power lines outside my apt. one block west of Broadway by the Library. I didn’t know if it was unusual for them to be here or not, now I know.