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Do Hawks Mate for Life? The Surprising Answer!

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northern harrier hawks flying over marsh

Hawks are striking creatures that effortlessly soar through the air, initiate complex aerial mating sequences, and adapt to a wide range of environmental conditions to establish habitats. There are over 200 species of hawks in the world, and unlike many mating partners in the bird kingdom, hawks are excellent at co-parenting. The birds are great parents, but do they mate for life?

Most hawks are strictly monogamous and will seek out their former partners each year after being separated over the winter. However, Red-tailed Hawk parents share a closer bond than other species, and they rarely pick another mate unless one of the birds dies.

Hawks Are Creatures of Habit

Although they mate for life, hawks are solitary hunters, and they rarely see their mates during the day until they return to the nest with fresh meat. Hawks, particularly Red-tailed Hawks, are creatures of habit that prefer to use the same location for mating and hunting every year. While Cooper hawks and most other species will construct a new nest every year, Red-tailed hawks like to use the previous year’s nest while making a few modifications with new sticks and bark.

The Parenting Skills of Hawks

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Image Credit: TheOtherKev, Pixabay

Compared to mammals, birds are fonder of sharing the responsibilities of parenting. Over 90% of all bird species practice some form of shared parental duties. However, male hawks stick around longer than other birds, and most hawks stay with their mates and children for six weeks or more after the babies hatch. When the female is roosting in the nest, the male spends the day hunting prey to feed his mate and children. Since hawks can lay up to five eggs, the male is incredibly busy finding food to feed the family. He will make several trips every day back to the nest to deliver food. The female will tear up the freshly killed prey and prepare it for the young.

Mating Rituals

The spectacular mating rituals of hawks have led some to assume that hawks make love in mid-air. While they do not copulate in the air, they perform an acrobatic show that anyone on the ground with binoculars is lucky to observe. The courtship begins when a male spots a potential mate; larger males tend to favor larger females and likewise with smaller birds. The male and female glide in the air and inspect each other from a distance. When the male decides he’s interested, he ascends to a higher altitude and attempts to impress the potential mate with his aerial skills.

The male will sometimes climb to over 1,000 feet and slowly circle overhead until he drops down abruptly like a dive bomber. The bird will make several diving passes near the female and will eventually touch her briefly to signal the next phase of the courtship. In this phase, the male repeatedly tackles his mate in mid-air, and the birds lock talons as they plunge downward. When the creatures are wrestling and descending, they often break free right before they’re in danger of hitting the ground. If the female is impressed, she flies to a tree to perch, and the mating begins. Female hawks only lay eggs once a year.

Nest Building

Like parenting, building a nest is a dual responsibility shared by males and females. Males typically select the perfect tree for the nest and begin collecting sticks and other organic material to build it. Females construct the nest while the males fly around the area to search for building material. The exterior of the nest is built of small sticks, but the interior is lined with leaves and grass to make nesting more comfortable. If a male spots an old squirrel nest that isn’t too small, he may decide to modify it with his mate’s help to make it a new home.

Red-tailed hawks are unique in their preference for using the same nest every year, but they simply build a new one if their old nest is unsuitable or destroyed by a storm. The lifespan of a nest depends on the climate and weather conditions in the area. In warmer temperate zones, hawks are less likely to migrate, and they try to maintain the same nesting area as long as possible.

The Loss of a Mate

Hawks can live up to 25 years, but many living in urban areas are lucky to survive over a year. Feeding their families and protecting their young are complex tasks for any species of hawk, but in the cities, they face additional dangers. In New York City, the hawks’ greatest threats are speeding cars and poisoned mammals. Car collisions are the primary cause of death for the birds in the city, but rats and mice poisoned by the city or citizens are a close second.

The world’s most famous Red-tailed hawk, Pale Male, has been the subject of numerous news segments, documentaries, and children’s books. Since the early 1990s, New Yorkers and birdwatchers worldwide have followed Pale Male’s family life after he made a nest on top of a luxury apartment facing Central Park. Although Red-tails mate for life, Pale Male has had several girlfriends. The hawk had miserable luck because his lifetime mates kept dying off. When the public demanded that the city change its pest control policies, the city officials decided to use rat poison that did not contain the chemical responsible for killing hawks.

Other Birds That Mate for Life

It’s nice to think that hawks are more exceptional than other creatures that abandon their mates and find new partners every year. Hawks show affection to each other, but after nesting and birthing are completed, they part ways until the late winter when the process begins again. Keeping the same mate is a survival instinct. After living as solo hunters, hawks can always depend on returning to the same partner for mating. Unlike most mammals, male hawks do not have to waste energy every season fighting off rivals and competing for females. Some of the other bird species that mate for life include:

  • Laysan Albatross
  • Atlantic Puffin
  • California Condor
  • Whooping Crane
  • Scarlet Macaw
  • Black Vulture
  • Mute Swan
  • Bald Eagle

Hawks and other monogamous birds face different threats depending on their nesting areas. Although other birds and mammals may attempt to steal eggs or food from nesting parents, the biggest threats come from regions near human development. Birds living in urban and suburban environments must contend with automobiles, construction machinery, poisoned rodents, and unhappy property managers. Hawks and other birds quickly find new mates when their partners die, but it’s likely that fewer relationships would end without human interference.

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Final Thoughts

When you study the lifecycle of hawks, they appear to embrace more human qualities than other birds. They share the responsibilities of parenting, nest building, and defending the young. Hawks like to return to the same area every year and seem attached to their home bases. Although hawks mate for life, they live in a dangerous world, and they’re lucky when they get to spend several years with their soulmates.


Featured Image Credit: Chase D’animulls, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.

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