Cornell’s Beloved Hawks Raise a Family, Far Above Campus

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Via webcam and binoculars, the many fans of the feathered celebrities follow an unscripted nature story

By Joe Wilensky

The scene is both adorable and a bit macabre.

Near the top of a light tower 85 feet above the Cornell athletic fields, three fluffy, white red-tailed hawk chicks bob their heads in an ample nest. They look up expectantly as their mother places bits of squirrel into their tiny beaks.

Around them is an intricate layering of twigs and sticks, as well as some furry animal remains—either from a previous meal or on deck for the next one.

The mother—named, aptly, Big Red—continues divvying up the morsels; the chicks occasionally squabble, trying to steal a sibling’s portion.

Meanwhile, a fourth egg is moving slightly; it has begun to hatch.

A screengrab from the Red-tailed Hawks Live Cam shows three of this year's nestlings, with a fourth egg nearly ready to hatch
Three of this year's nestlings, with a fourth in its shell. (Photo by Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

For at least the past decade, Big Red and her current mate, Arthur (and her previous one, Ezra), have used two different towers as regular nesting sites, rearing an average of three chicks a year during spring and summer.

The hawk parents and their young have attracted a devoted audience of birdwatchers and raptor fans—who, both in person and online around the globe, chart developmental milestones, first flights, and sightings around campus.

The hawk parents and their young have attracted a devoted audience of birdwatchers and raptor fans.

This avid following is largely due to the red-tailed hawks live cam, operated by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology since 2012.

It has given watchers an up-close, high-definition, unscripted, and unvarnished view throughout each breeding season—including preparing the nest, egg-laying, the hatching of nestlings, and the day-to-day feeding and growth of the chicks.

This year—to the delight of fans, and for the first time since she has been observed—Big Red laid four eggs, and all the nestlings fledged successfully.

Arthur takes off from the Sage Hall spire as Big Red looks on
Arthur takes off from the Sage Hall spire as Big Red looks on. (Photo by Cynthia Sedlacek)

“Year after year, Big Red has proven to be a stalwart provider to her family,” says Ben Walters, a Bird Cams communications specialist with the Lab. “She keeps her eggs warm by insulating them from spring snowstorms and fiercely defends her young from other birds that intrude into the hawks’ campus territory.”

Red-tailed hawks typically build their nests high above ground in structures that offer expansive and unobstructed views. In forests, breeding pairs often select spots in the crowns of taller trees.

Where trees are scarce, they choose sites that offer similar vantage points above the landscape, like cliffs and cellphone towers.

In urban areas, they seem content to nest on similar tall structures, such as building ledges (or light towers like the ones Big Red has chosen, located along Tower Road near Weill Hall and across from Fernow).

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Big Red’s first long-term mate, nesting with her from 2012–16, was named Ezra after the University’s founder. Beloved by the campus community, he sadly had to be euthanized after a severe wing fracture in 2017.

Big Red removes prey remains from the nest after feeding her chicks. (Photo by Cynthia Sedlacek)

Arthur—first spotted as a fledgling in 2016—has raised chicks with Big Red since 2018. He’s known for being an industrious nest builder and proficient hunter, Walters says.

Their offspring migrate south for the winter months, returning to the region the following season to find their own territory.

In the meantime, the parents stay local for the winter and, by late February, begin preparing a new nest for their next round of chicks.

One of the fledglings from Big Red and Arthur’s first clutch hones her flying skills around the athletic fields. (Photo by Cynthia Sedlacek)

Despite their dedicated fanbase and scenic Ithaca digs, Big Red and her family face the threats typical to an urban environment, including buildings with large windows and highly trafficked thoroughfares.

In addition to the loss of Ezra, in 2014 a young hawk was injured by an automated roof vent; a 2022 fledgling perished following a collision with a glass breezeway, and one of its siblings was found injured in June but is recovering.

(A campus committee has been working to reduce these hazards in both new and existing construction.)

Among the birds’ superfans is Cindy Ryan Sedlacek ’84, a data administration director for the College of Arts & Sciences. She began watching the cam during its first year in 2012—and, she says, it was “love at first sight.”

An avid photographer, Sedlacek began to document the hawks’ lives as a “birder on the ground.” She has amassed thousands of images of pair bonding, squabbles, bathing, in-flight transfers of prey, and more.

“My camera allows me to capture their beauty in many ways that the human eye can’t see,” she says, “like their spectacular wing positions and detailed feather patterns.”

Charles Eldermire, an avian biologist and educator, leads the Lab of O’s Bird Cams project.

He notes that fans of the hawks find themselves drawn to following the natural arc of the nesting season, connecting both to nature and each other.

“It’s not a documentary,” he says. “It’s not a curated story. It’s just life.”

(Top: Video by Cornell University; footage provided by the Lab of Ornithology)

Published July 26, 2022


Comments

  1. Darlene V Quinn, Class of 1966

    I love these birds and their families. I started watching the live cam in 2014 and have continued every year. The parents are wonderful and the chicks adorable. The parents work so hard building their nest each year and raising their chicks. I get so sad when one doesn’t make it, like this year. I also enjoy watching Ferris Akel when he visits the site every Saturday, live, and shows us the chicks after they have fledged and are no longer in the nest. How can anyone resist watching such beautiful birds.

  2. Anna Gracey

    I was watching them this year! My first Hawk family to watch. And comparing them with other raptors they were so amazingly cared for peaceful and sweet. So well behaved, hardly any bonking…And there were 4 babies, all fledged beautifully and cared for even after….and the kids hang around sitting beside each other after fledging…Now, this what I call a perfect sweet family 😊💖 (and by the way the parents are so beautiful…red because of her colour and Arthur …WOW! I found hin so different looking than red, since he stroke me almost like silver beside big red), Beautiful couple sweet kids ! I miss them

  3. Anne C. Sullivan

    This is my second year watching the Hawk Cam and especially during covid it has been a tremendous source of pleasure, learning, and hope. I’m grateful to Cornell University for doing all it can to help these raptors survive a hazardous urban environment. (I have a friend who went to Cornell.)
    I too look forward to talented Ferris Akel on Saturdays as he makes us feel as though we were there too. It’s upsetting when a fledgling dies and Mr. Akel had just the right words and sentiments to convey a few weeks ago.
    Thank you Cornell for keeping us informed about the progress of the injured fledgling.

  4. Steve Chamides, Class of 1964

    I too enjoy this amazing bird watching life experience, up close and personal.
    Kudos to the talented and devoted staff and volunteers who make this possible.
    Thank you for all you do to keep this avian family well and protected.

  5. Big Red Fan

    Why does it say a 2022 fledgling perished? I thought both L3 and L4 were recovering well. I hope they are alright!

    • Ferris

      Sadly, L1 perished, and had been found on July 14th after an apparent collision with window glass.

    • Bob Cohen

      L1 had a fatal collision.

      I’ve never been on the Cornell campus but for a dozen years I’ve been enthralled by the hawk nest cam.

  6. Justice Redhawk

    Awesome! My namesake !

  7. niren sirohi, Class of 1999

    Watching Big Red and Arthur’s family hatch, grow, fledge and beyond has truly been exhilarating and informative on so many levels. Not only do the Cornell cams show us the nest and beyond, following BOGs like Karel and Cindy and Ferris and others stream the day to day lives (sometimes treacherous) of these chicks as they navigate cornell and young adulthood is truly a blessing. Thankyou to the Cornell Lab, to our BOGs, to the cam, stream, social media community following these beauties, to Janet Swanson wildlife hospital, and to the good samaritans who have helped out L3 and L4 when they needed it. True to Arthur Allen’s words and desires, we are watching these hawks live life in their habitat and experiencing the whole bird as he would say

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