Akronisms | Red-tailed hawks, neighborhood apex predators

Writing by Jeff Davis

Walking the dog one day and approaching one of those attractive fences designed to keep household pets in the yard, the dog slows down — dramatically. Then she goes into one of those low crouches you see when animals sense danger or get ready to pounce. Then she stops altogether and stares. 

This isn’t part of the regular routine, because she normally goes into a happy dance at this point, expecting to see and free-associate with the friendly neighbor dog inside the said fence. But she’s not staring at the neighbor dog. She’s staring at a squirrel, splayed out on the side of a huge maple eight feet away. The squirrel is staring right back, and it doesn’t move. Neither does the dog. 

When the dog doesn’t respond to a flick of the leash and a “let’s go,” a closer look reveals the true situation: Standing on the ground on the other side of the fence, and exactly halfway between the crouching dog and the frozen squirrel, is a red-tailed hawk who isn’t moving either. Because it’s almost lunchtime.

This is a predicament for the squirrel. Potential freedom if he doesn’t move. Quite possibly becoming a take-out meal if he does. This goes on for five more minutes. 

This drama would have never been observed were it not that red-tailed hawks are getting pretty common around here. If you haven’t seen one, you need to look up more often. 

Wild things aren’t necessarily confined by city and county lines, but, based on the Greater Akron Audubon Society’s bird count, there were 177 red-tailed hawks in Summit County last summer, up from 149 in 2016. There were another 139 hawks of other varieties, too. That’s a lot of hawks around here. 

A nesting pair usually presides over a territory of 2 to 3 square miles, where they find their food, raise their babies and reside for as long as 20 years. In Akron, they’ve grown accustomed to seeing people and cars and chimneys, right up close. They can look pretty fierce. Standing, they’re tall enough to come up to my thigh. 

But like most wild animals, they don’t bother people. Just squirrels, rodents, and other small creatures that would surely overrun us otherwise. Hawks also prey on a lot of smaller birds, which is getting to be an issue. Rock pigeons and grackles seem to have taken a hit around here in recent years, though many other species are up. 

Adult hawks have no natural enemies. That makes them “apex predators.” Bald eagles and great blue herons — the sexier of the Summit County big birds — are apex predators, too. But even apex predators have preferred diets. In the case of large birds, it is often defined by the dead weight they can haul away. 

But it’s also a matter of what’s on offer. Herons, for instance, are built for wading. What’s in the Cuyahoga River at ankle depth? Small fish, frogs, ducklings, et cetera. Bald eagles need more calories, so they eat bigger fish from deeper waters. But in times of desperation, all these birds will eat almost anything they can catch. 

As will coyotes. 

Like the big birds — who, we must remind you, get better press — coyotes scatter themselves throughout our urban, suburban, and rural lives. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says they have been in every one of the state’s 88 counties for decades. We don’t know how many, because no one actually tries to count them. ODNR only refers to their population “density.” Our very own Summit County is “densely” populated with coyotes, they say.

Should we be afraid of them? Not so much. They can look pretty big, but coyotes are all hair. In the Midwest, mature males usually weigh only 35-40 pounds, about the same as your average Welsh corgi or cocker spaniel. They will wander into neighborhoods to scavenge trash and pet food that has been left outside, but they much prefer undeveloped areas with fresh water, good hunting and a bit of privacy. 

According to Ryan Trimbath and Doug Markan, Cuyahoga Valley National Park biologists, even in the 55 square miles of the national park, coyotes mostly keep to themselves. They will push foxes out of their hunting areas and, like dogs, sometimes chase people away from their pups. But otherwise they are so lightly regarded as trouble that their population isn’t actively controlled. 

In the parks, coyotes serve a useful purpose in balancing out the populations of smaller critters, including things the big birds can’t reach or lift. A study done in the CVNP showed coyotes are omnivores, chowing down on raccoons, voles, muskrats and the occasional dead deer, as well as beetles, nuts and seeds. 

Encounters in neighborhoods are typically very brief, one-sided arguments with pet dogs, who bark at coyotes and chase them away. Rarely, they will grab an unattended small pet. Typically, this happens at night, because coyotes have learned that’s the best time of day to avoid humans, who are in fact their biggest threat.  

Still worried about coyotes? Published reports say, in the U.S., there are an average of five coyote attacks on humans every year. Since 1981, these attacks have caused two deaths. Dog attacks, on the other hand, number about 4.5 million a year. Fatal attacks average between 30 and 50 per year. 

Remember the dog, hawk and squirrel triple stare-down event I mentioned at the beginning? It turns out there was a fourth party at the party — the resident dog, who had been out of sight behind the big maple tree the whole time. After what seemed like a pretty long coffee break, the dog whipped around the tree, the squirrel ran straight up, and the red-tailed hawk did a quick one-eighty and flew directly over our heads to find a more cooperative lunchmate. We could feel the breeze. 

Jeff Davis is a life resident of the Akron area and is a retired writer, editor, teacher, and dog lover. He’s also a proud co-owner of this newspaper. 

Photo: A friendly neighborhood red-tailed Hawk near Highland Square. Photo provided to the author by Bernadette Gibson.