WILMINGTON, Del. — As emergency repairs got underway at the I-495 bridge in Wilmington last month, crews found a surprise nestled 60 feet above the ground within the structure – a pair of baby raptors, still too young to fly.
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Their mother had built a stick nest on a steel grate between the concrete pier caps, just below the travel lanes next to the Christina River. It probably seemed like a safe place to raise a family – until a lot of heavy machinery, drills and cranes started arriving in early June.
It was bad news for the birds and for the state Department of Transportation, which wanted to get repairs underway swiftly and restore traffic to the closed section of the bridge, which carried an average 90,000 vehicles a day.
Observers first thought the fledglings were ospreys, and protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it unlawful to “take” any migratory bird or any part of a nest or eggs.
DelDOT notified the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Delaware Wildlife Species Conservation & Research Program, which later identified the pair as red-tail hawk chicks.
“I was so relieved it wasn’t an osprey. The nesting season goes through the end of June, so we wouldn’t have been able to do any activity on Pier 14,” Transportation Secretary Shailen Bhatt said.
At first, wildlife officials didn’t see any reason to remove the fledglings, estimating they were two to three weeks from leaving the nest. However, experts advised workers to wear hard hats in case the chicks’ parents became defensive of the nest.
The stakes changed as engineers progressed with repair plans, and the foundation of Pier 14 was among those to be replaced. Environmental officials were concerned how the young hawks would fare as technicians began test soil borings nearby, and later when heavy construction increased.
Red-tail hawks are also protected under federal law, so state officials sought a salvage permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service before trapping and relocating the pair to Tri-State Bird Rescue near Newark on June 10, according to DelDOT records.
“The hawks were very close to fledging but not able to fly yet. It was not going to be a safe location for them with all the disturbance and all the equipment and construction that they were gong to have in the area,” said Lisa Smith, executive director of Tri-State Bird Rescue.
“They took them from the nest and met one of our volunteers, who brought them in. The timing was unfortunate, too, because in another week or two they would have been able to fly.”.
Upon arrival at Tri-State, the chicks passed a health evaluation, Smith said. They’re flying now, and Tri-State anticipates releasing them into the wild in two to three weeks.
“We’ll release them back in the area where their parents have that territory,” Smith said. “Not much [is] known about how birds recognize their family members, but there’s a good chance that the parents will recognize them.”.
The hope is the fledglings’ parents can provide additional support while the juveniles are learning how to hunt, she said.
The red-tailed hawk is among North America’s most common hawks. Their stick nests are constructed high above the ground, and the female lays one to five eggs a year. Typically, both parents incubate the eggs for four to five weeks, and feed the babies from the time they hatch until they leave the nest about six weeks later.
The juveniles – which have not been named by Tri-State – will grow to an average height of 18 to 26 inches, with a wingspan of more than 3 feet. The raptors are monogamous and sometimes mate for life.