ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In Albuquerque, the squawk of a hungry young Cooper’s hawk is an increasingly common sound.
And Brian Millsap’s eyes darted toward the screechy noise. “That’s a food begging call,” Millsap said, pointing to a juvenile hawk perched on a branch overhanging Princess Jeanne Avenue in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights.
It was shortly after 8 a.m., the dog walkers were out and the demanding young hawks were hungry. Old enough to fly but not to hunt, they flit from tree to tree and squawk, waiting for Mom or Dad to bring them a yummy dead bird for breakfast.
Beneath one of the birds’ nesting sites, Millsap picked up the barely recognizable remnants of what used to be one such small bird. “It’s a fledgling robin,” he said. “What’s left of a fledgling robin.”
“I’ll be drinking my coffee and I’ll hear their call,” said Helene Rood, one of the morning dog walkers last week who stopped to watch Millsap and a team of biologists watch the birds.
“The population in Albuquerque is growing,” said Millsap, the Albuquerque-based national raptor coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Like coyotes, pigeons and rats, Cooper’s hawks are one of those creatures that seem to have figured out how to prosper in our midst, and for some reason Albuquerque is particularly attractive to them. Millsap and a team of colleagues are fanning out across Albuquerque this summer as part of a multiyear effort to try to understand how and why.
The scientists are currently tracking 25 birds fitted in past years with radio collars. This year, they hope to add the monitoring devices to 20 more birds. They are trapping more birds – weighing them, checking for disease and putting a numbered band on each bird’s leg for later identification before releasing them back into the wild. Well, sort of “the wild.”
If you live in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, the scientists say, the chances are good that there is a Cooper’s hawk nest within a quarter mile of you.
I believe this. When they invited Journal photographer Greg Sorber and me to join them for a day of field work last week, they took us to one nesting site in an elm tree around the corner from my house and another within a hundred yards of my Albuquerque Journal newsroom desk.
These are city birds. Essentially every park in the city has a pair of Cooper’s hawks, according to Kristin Madden, a biologist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish and one of the leaders of the Albuquerque Cooper’s Hawk Project.
When Madden began studying Albuquerque’s urban Cooper’s hawks in 2010, she was told to expect to find 25 to 30 nesting pairs. That first year, she found 47. Since then, the team’s inventory of urban Cooper’s hawks nesting sites has expanded to 70. Surprisingly, the researchers have found higher bird density in the Northeast Heights than in the bosque, the strip of riverside woods that flanks the Rio Grande through the center of town.
Bird populations are higher in the Northeast Heights than they are on Albuquerque’s West Side, which the scientists think offers a clue about the creatures’ population dynamics, and Cooper’s hawks success here, as measured by the number of young reared by each nesting pair, is among the highest measured anywhere, according to Millsap.
Cooper’s hawks are primarily woodland birds, and we have built an expansive urban forest across the Northeast Heights. The urban neighborhoods on the east side of the river are older, and therefore their trees are more mature, making them a better “forest” for the birds, Madden suggested.
The urban forest also makes great habitat for smaller birds – sparrows, finches, robins and especially doves and pigeons. Cooper’s hawks especially love the doves and pigeons.
According to Madden, populations here seem to be on the rise in parallel with increasing population of white-winged doves and Eurasian collared doves, an immigrant that arrived in the Bahamas in the 1970s and has been rapidly spreading across North America ever since.
Keep that in mind as you’re putting out birdseed in the backyard feeder. Even though it’s mostly the doves eating the seed, it eventually makes its way up the food chain. “You’re feeding the hawks, too,” Millsap said.