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Hawkish New Neighbors Bathe in Pool


Question: A family of four hawks moved into our backyard at the beginning of July. I believe they're red-tailed, but I'm not certain. Although they all look the same, I think the largest one is a mother and the others her babies. They have long tails with horizontal black stripes and their chests are white with brown spots. Their nest is in a very tall tree on our property.

We are thrilled to have them take up residence, but aren't quite certain how to behave around them. Is it possible to get too close? Would they attack a human?

Our pool cover usually has some condensation on it in the morning, and my husband hoses it down, which adds more fresh water. They love sitting on top of it like it's a giant birdbath, washing and standing on one leg. Do you have any tips on hawk-human etiquette?


Sherman Oaks

Answer: Hawks can be difficult to identify, even for experts, so I consulted with Allen Fish, director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in Northern California. Based on your identification, Fish believes your birds are probably red-shouldered hawks, an increasingly common species in urban areas within the coastal Southern California belt.

Renowned for nesting in wooded areas near rivers or lakes, the birds leave the nest in early July, then begin learning to hunt for lizards, frogs, mice, snakes and insects.

According to Fish, this family is a little unusual in that most hawks don't hang around on pool covers. Besides the bathing, they also might have been using the fresh water as supplemental drinking water, although hawks normally metabolize their water through their food.

How you deal with the birds' presence comes down to whether you want to swim or see the hawks. They pose no danger to you or your pets, although other raptors like owls will take an occasional cat. But don't get up close--not because they might attack you, but because you might frighten them away permanently.

Keep in mind that since this year has been extremely dry in the West, raptors are suffering from both malnutrition and breeding difficulties (lack of rain means low abundance of their prey, particularly rodents). In addition, they're having to contend with a growing population of mammalian predators that vie for the same food, which means we may see a decline in raptors' numbers as the years go on.

Though some of the hawks may have dispersed by now, any extra patience you can muster with their morning ablutions will be a real gift to the birds.

Disappearing Cats? Look to the Coyotes

Q: Do foxes go after cats? In the last two months there has been a family of foxes going through our yard and a lot of neighborhood cats have been disappearing. We also have coyotes in our area but my main concern is the fox at this time. I think it is a red fox but I am not sure. His back is gray but there is a lot of red on his sides and neck.


La Canada Flintridge

A: Cats and foxes are pretty close in size. Consequently, foxes are not big predators of cats, although on occasion a fox will kill one if the size difference between the two is great enough. The introduced red fox, which is larger and taller than the native gray fox, is more likely of the two to kill a cat.

Instead, foxes go for smaller creatures. A chicken is really more their style.

If your neighborhood is having persistent problems with missing cats, you really should look to the more pernicious mammalian predator stalking through the night--the coyote.

It has been noted that foxes and coyotes, which are on the same rung of the food-chain ladder, can come into direct conflict when there is not enough food or other resources. The end result is that the larger and more aggressive coyote may drive the foxes out or kill them off until they are no longer a threat to the coyote's food source.

In decent habitat, though, the two species can live in relative abundance side by side.

As far as which species you have, gray and red foxes prefer different habitats, which can be a clue. The gray fox prefers a wooded and dry, brushy, chaparral habitat. The red fox looks more like a dog and prefers open country with some woods.

Another clue to determining which species is roaming through your neighborhood is found by looking at what remains after a kill. Coyotes often leave a pile of fur and bones at the kill site. Foxes, on the other hand, generally leave no trace as their food is either taken back to the den or is cached, or buried, for later.

Given your location at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, I'd guess you're being visited by gray foxes.

Reader Response

We solved our problem with raccoons dumping over our trash cans here in Topanga Canyon. Here's how:

The raccoons just love any kind of leftovers. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard those critters going through our trash at 3 in the morning. We would put bungee cords on the lids and they'd still get in. So now we freeze our dinner discards--lettuce, potato skins, watermelon rinds--anything you would put in a compost heap plus leftovers. We end up with about half a plastic grocery bag of food discards every week, which we throw in on top of our regular garbage on pickup day. Since we stopped putting smelly food discards into the trash cans we haven't had one problem.



Got critter conflicts? Send your queries to wildlife biologist Andrea Kitay at P.O. Box 2489, Camarillo, CA 93011, or via e-mail to Please include your name and city. Questions cannot be answered individually. Visit to see answers to frequently asked questions.

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