Are you hearing awkward screams lately? From the sky, I mean. These are the screams I’ve been waiting for. Awkward hawk screams are a Sign of the Season.
Every summer, the Red-tailed Hawks who hunt the neighborhood train at least one baby to hunt. And even though the baby is already the size of his parents, his call is not.
Mom and Dad do the Scary Hawk Scream familiar from movie soundtracks: the raspy but piercing KEEEEEEEEE-ARR that fills the sky for about two seconds. This, I hear year-round when Red-tails soar overhead.
Here’s a quick sample:
But young hawks don’t scream yet: they squeal. And it’s adorable.
The squeals are a series of two-note whistles, with the first note high and the second note higher:
wee-EEE, wee-EEE wee-EEE!
The tone is bright but splitty, and the notes veer sharp and flat in an out-of-control, voice-cracking, bar-mitzvah-boy way.
Here’s a recording of a juvenile Red-tail call from the Macaulay Library.
-Sincerest Form of Flattery
I’ve always tried—and failed—to whistle the two notes just so. Not to “call” a hawk, but to see what it feels like to sound like one.
On a piano, the most representative interval is E6 to A6, but a perfect fourth on a keyboard is too perfect, too reductive. On a hawk syrinx, the same two pitches are wild chords of semitones and overtones.
-Off-label Use (for Lemonade Straws)
And here I’d like to introduce a more portable tool with which to mimic a teenage Red-tail. The Lemonade Straw.
You know the wide, corrugated plastic straws that come with fresh-squeezed lemonade at the County Fair? Long, flexible, but completely un-recyclable. I save them in hopes I’ll remember to bring them to the next fair, but meanwhile, they accumulate in a junk drawer.
One year, I noticed that a lemonade straw not only whistles when we whip it through the air, it whistles when *we* are the air: when we blow through the straw. The faster the air, the higher the pitch.
Wee-EEE, wee-EEE, wee-EEE!
Ever since, when I first hear the backyard squeals (mid-July), I run inside, fetch the lemonade straws, and run back out, hoping the neighbors don’t witness what happens next.
If you hear a hawk call from a tree near a birdfeeder, it might be a Blue Jay. They imitate adult and juvenile Red-tails, and either call is likely to spook all the other birds from a feeder so the Jay scores all the seed for himself.
Or, it might be some crazy neighbor, blowing through a lemonade straw…
Have you heard teen hawks above your own yard?
If not, you’ve got a few more weeks to listen. Mid-July and August is prime time. After that, the babies will be screaming like the grownups.
Red-tailed Hawk / Buteo jamaicensis entry at AllAboutBirds (Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
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Joanna Brichetto is a naturalist and writer in Nashville, the hackberry-tree capital of the world.
She writes about everyday marvels amid everyday habitat loss, and her essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Hippocampus, The Hopper, Flyway, The Common, City Creatures, The Fourth River and other journals.