Inside The New York Botanical Garden

Hawks Face Off with Nesting Owl in Forest

Posted in Wildlife on February 18 2010, by Plant Talk

Bird Watchers Witness Drama During Weekly Walk

Debbie Becker leads a free bird walk at the Garden every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. beginning at the Reflecting Pool in the Leon Levy Visitor Center.
Photo of owls: Debbie Becker

Late last month, in frigid weather conditions, 12 loyal birders met me under the clock at 11 a.m. for the weekly bird walk around the Garden. Our main objective was to see the nesting great horned owls. We headed over to the snag at the Forest’s edge where the owls successfully nested last year, and there in a cavity we saw our resident female owl, all fluffed up sitting, presumably, on eggs—only the top half of her body was visible.

We then searched for the male owl, who usually is nearby, guarding the nest and his mate. Our binoculars scanned the bare branches of surrounding trees until we spotted him wedged between the trunk and a branch of a tree. Three blue jays were harassing him—screeching at the top of their lungs. When one jay got too close, the owl flew to a branch closer to us.

Hawk at the Reflecting PoolAs we stood there freezing and admiring his majestic beauty a red-tailed hawk flew in and landed about 20 feet away from the owl. This wasn’t any red-tailed hawk—it was the female that nested on the Library building last spring. She and her mate (he later died from eating a poisoned rat) had three offspring; she and her brood often can be seen flying around the Garden searching for prey. We had seen the female many times before, silently perched waiting for some unsuspecting squirrel or rabbit to happen by.

But this time she was facing off against the male great horned owl. As a birder with many years’ experience, I had never seen a red-tailed hawk even think of taking down a great horned owl. In fact, it is great horned owls that have been known to kill red-tailed hawks by silently swooping down on them from above.

But here it was daylight and the female red-tailed hawk’s time to hunt (red-tailed hawks usually hunt alone and pursue small game such as birds, rabbits, or squirrels). She is larger than the owl, and he immediately went into a defense posture—shouldering his wings, dilating his pupils, and bobbing his head. The red-tailed looked undisturbed by his display. The male owl began hooting and again displaying. It was a formidable standoff.

For almost 10 agonizing minutes the two hunters of the forest locked eyes. The birders asked me to intercede, but I thought better of interrupting nature. I love the owls and don’t want to see them hurt, but I asked the birders to wait and see if the owl could fend off this predator himself.

The red-tailed ruffled her feathers and the great horned owl hooted and shouldered his wings. Then the red-tailed took off, flew over the owl’s head, and landed on a branch behind the owl, who turned around to face her. Out of the blue another red-tailed hawk flew in and landed on the same branch as the owl. My heart skipped a beat. The red-tailed hawks appeared to be pack hunting! The large female intended to distract the owl while the other red-tailed, which was an immature bird, flew in, presumably, for the kill.

Nature or no nature, I yelled to the other birders, and we all started screaming and waving our arms while running toward the tree. The red-tailed hawks were not easily moved, but finally they took off. After a few moments the owl returned to its normal stance and flew to another tree deeper into the Forest. It was a harrowing experience for us all. and thankfully the owl was safe—but for how long? Were the red-tailed hawks simply acting territorial or were they really out to kill the great horned owl? Time may tell.

Follow the saga with Debbie Becker on her weekly bird walks, Saturdays beginning at 11 a.m. Meet at the Reflecting Pool in the Leon Levy Visitor Center.



Thank you to all the birding blogs who have posted follow-ups about this faceoff. Below, Debbie answers some of the questions that have arisen from those posts. (Apologies to all who have tried to comment but couldn’t. Thanks for letting us know. We are tracking down the technical problem.)

Regarding the faceoff: It is always interesting to observe and discuss bird behavior. The incident we witnessed, whether a strategic attack or a territorial standoff made for interesting RT hawk behavior. Since the owls and hawks have been nesting at NYBG and Fordham for the past few years, one wonders how many—if any—of these encounters have happened before. Nevertheless, it was quite a drama for birders on a cold winter day.

The male owl in question is rather small compared to the male owl that resided at NYBG for more than 20 years. This is the new male’s second mating season. He may be honing his defensive skills and did a good job of standing up to Rose until the second RT appeared. I did not mention beaks being used in the standoff, as was reported in one follow-up blog, because we know that these mighty predators capture prey with their talons and use their beaks to rip or shred their kill.

Regarding the identity of the other red-tailed hawk seen with Rose during the faceoff: Rose and her three offspring have been hunting in the Garden since the day they fledged. I will leave the identity of Rose’s new mate to the Fordham observers, but they should know there is another adult RT flying around the Garden.

Regarding the owl’s position in the nest: On our weekly walks, birders have been complaining that they can barely see the owl on the nest because she is hunkered down so low. But absolutely, a change in position can mean a chick has been hatched.

Andrew Block said:

I just wanted to write a response to Debbie’s report. While it is always interesting to see animal behavior whether it is violent or not, under no curcumstances should humans interfere with an animals natural behaviors. Intefering with the owls and hawks as she and her group did was something that should not have happened. She broke one of the major cardinal rules of birding and if she were a true biologist this incident would not have happened. I hope I do not hear of such a situation ocurring again.


We all can appreciate allowing nature to run it’s course. As Debbie has mentioned, she and her field trip participants felt that the owls were in danger. If they hadn’t interfered and the owl was attacked and killed, no doubt comments would come in asking why nothing was done to stop it.

Does this differ from chasing a raccoon or snake away from a nest or killing one type of bird species found in nest holes meant for another species or using tape recordings or phishing to draw a species into view?

This is an interesting debate. What would you do in the same situation? We’d love to hear from you.

Lavinia said:

I am happy to report that I saw Lena, our female owl in her nest on Saturday (the day after the dreaded storm). Although Jr., the male was not in sight, I heard that he had been spotted earlier. In answer to Andrew, while I can understand your concern, I must disagree. If the birders had not intervened on that frightful day, not only would we have lost our male great horned owl, but I fear that the female and her eggs would have also been lost. These are our resident great horned owls, and we will do whatever it takes to keep them around for as long as possible.

jc said:

I was one of bird watchers on the walk that day. The Garden’s resident great horned male owl looked to be in great danger. He was being attacked by not one but two red-tailed hawks. After waiting patiently, we felt it was in the best interest to make some noise and see if we could scare away the hawks. The hawks flew off thus avoiding a fight and possible injury to the birds. We were especially concerned for the male owl since he was outnumbered and is protecting the female owl and her nest. The group’s action prevented any possible harm to the Garden’s resident owls.

carolyn said:


I have two barred owls in my yard. One of them has been around for years, I’ve just recently seen the female the night after 4th of July. I live surrounded by pine trees and a creek. This morning at 6:45, daylight, the owl was on a branch outside of my porch. Is there anyone I can report this sighting too.

What fascinating birds.

shay said:

it was very irresponsible and inappropriate for you to get involved with raptors fighting with each other….no exscuse for what you did.

Frank Morse said:

I agree with Andrew & Shay. Carol, J.C., Lavinia, & anyone else favoring the owls over the hawks:- I am an avid birder & have been for many years too my friends. I especially, have done extennsive research on RTH’s & Gho’s over the years & have also witnessed many interactions between these 2 ubiquitious raptors over the years. Guess what? The owls lose just as much as they win. I have seen many Gho’s that are now imprinted on humans and are at many raptor centers around N. america with injured wings, wounds and severed eyes, (blind) etc etc from attacks from RTH’s- That can no longer live in the wild but are kept alive & used as teaching birds to the public at these centers. Some Gho’s are killed from attacks from adult RTH’s in daylight when they get too close to the hawks nests. I HAVE PERSONALLY eyewitnessed at a nearby resort here in Orlando Fl, A RTH dive at a Gho that was perched ontop of a pole in an electrical power station. She dived down at a high speed( a speed the gho could only dream of reaching) like lightning and delt the owl a stunning blow to the head, knocking it off the pole and the owl fell to the ground and only after shaking off the “cobwebs” for a moment or two, was able to fly deep into the trees b4 she could finish the job. There are also documented reports on Gho’s being killed from attacks from Adult Rth’s – Northern Goshawks- Ferruginous Hawks, Ospreys

Frank Morse said:

Ospreys, Red shouldered hawks, Bald eagles & especially Golden Eagles!! There is even a documented account right now with a picture as it happened of a Bald Eagle standing on top of a dying Gho on the ground near a golf resort – it was daylight, The owl was too close to the eagles nest and was repostioning itself on a tree branch of a nearby fir tree when the eagle came down and snatched it right off the branch like a ragdoll. The owl was killed quickly and the Eagle was later caught on camera feeding the remains to its young on its nest less than half a mile away. I have seen the great horned owl on the losing end of these battles with adult hawks and eagles just as much as the other way around. It is always in night and on silent wing that these owls do their damage and mostly to the hawks jestlings. Owl losses and injuries to themselves and their own nestlings from Hawks and eagles are always in daylight when they have a chance.

Frank Morse said:

You all say you were protecting and ensuring the safety of the owls. Would you do the same for our precious RT hawks at night when the owls are voraciously predating on them and their chicks??? No! In fact, it sounds like you all could care less!! Owls are aggressive predators on Raptors and their chicks at nighttime. More often than you know, but do you care about them too?? No. u don’t. It doesn’t matter that it was Pale Male and all the other RT hawks that have nested in NY for so many years that initially sparked the interest in the public towards the raptors we have in NY today. Let’s cater to the all the owls in NY and forget about those worthless red tailed hawks, huh. Would that satisfy all of you? Thank you for being patient with me.

Frank Morse said:

Thank you for being patient with me with me venting off steam on these last few emails above and getting carried away with my emotions like I did. But the facts I inserted are factual. I love owls. Especially Gho’s- They are beautiful creatures and like the Red tailed hawk- deserve our admiration, and our respect for nature. I am not partial to either. But the Red tails are also beautiful and are favs among many a birder and deserve and have every right to life as much as the owl does. In fact, If it weren’t for the mighty Red tail, often, the owl would not even have a home- since they frequently depend on the RTH old nests to breed- since the gho cannot build its own nest, yet the RT H can. I guess nature was not kind to the iwl in that regard. My point is- after reading all of your emails above- you all sounded like advocates for the owls and completely disregarded the hawks as attackers and villians that had no right to be there nor any right at all when in fact often at night it is the owl who is villianess. But guess what? What you all saw was Nature at work and you did break a sacred thing and should have left them the Hell alone!! The hawks had EVERY right to be there – it is there home too – just as much the owls have the right to be there at night killing young hawks of their nests when you all aren’t around to defend them. I love both birds- I hope both species thrive there without much interraction,which, believe it or not, often do in the wild when their normal prey items are plentiful- one on the hunt by day, one by night. But what you all did above was just plain wrong!! Nature doesnt make mistakes my dear friends, and it was no mistake that the hawks were there- they were there for a reason- because they were supposed to be. Doing there job. protecting their family just like it is the owls right to live and eat and protect their family too. You All think Should have left them the hell alone!! Who do you think you all are? God???? Guess what?? Just like me, U are all far from it! And you all should be ashamed of yourself for what u did. Gid works nature out on His own. He doesnt need your help. Nature isnt always

Frank Morse said:

Nature Isn’t always pretty and can be cruel sometimes, but Nature knows best without our interference. And without our interference, both species have thrived and survived many worse scenarioes than the one above many times and are doing fine and theh will continue to do fine WITHOUT our interference!!!! In finishing- for those who are interested- google Bald Eagle kills great horned owl and hit images and read and look if youbthought I was joking. I was not. The image isnt pretty for the owl- but tell that to the tired female eagle mom who cant sleep a wink at night and sits all night in darkness over top of her young babies, constantly against GhO attacks and constant dive bombing on her at night so they can steal and kill her nestlings? these attacks are recorded on you tube via live video streams on the eagles nest at night! Do your research. Leave Nature inte alone. Dont interfere- There is a R.E.A.S.O.N. why the hawks were there. Oh. and uh, Lavinia, they are NOT you’re great horned owls, nor are they anyone elses. They are Natures! They kill other animals including other raptors nestlings and vice versa. As much as you will try to do anything possible to ensure there safety- If nature decides a fate that is not so good at the hands of another predator- whether you all try or not, u cannot protect them- it will still happen. I love both birds- but sometimes one hunts and injures the other or their nestlings. But it is Nature!!! You all should not have interfered for any reason. There is no excuse for what any of you did. Thank you.

KG said:

I hope to get a tour one day. Do you do them on Sundays? As to the standoff – I don’t believe you should have intervened. They are both predators. At nights – owls love to kill hawks when you are not around to intervene. That is not “fair”. In fact it was strange behavior by the hawks… you don’t know what caused it. For all you know one of their chicks may have been killed by that same owl.

Debbie Becker said:

There will be two Sunday bird walks on May 5th and 12th celebrating the opening of the Native Plant Garden.

The Red tailed hawk population at NYBG has boomed in the last few years, yet the Great Horned Owls remain as a pair, guarding their 250 acres. On last Saturday’s walk we spotted 6 RT hawks. Normally, no one would ever step between any predator attacking prey because this is nature and it is survival of the fittest. But with only a pair of breeding GHOs and a brood of 2-3, while it may seem wrong to most to step in, you really had to be there to witness the Red tailed Hawks attacking the small Great Horned Owl. It is interesting to read the emotional responses of those who love the hawks, but a lot of the birders love the owls. We have watched them closely and many birders feel truly connected to the owls in the same way hawk people are connected to the raptors.

I invite you to come on a bird walk in April/May when the Great Horned Owls chicks will hopefully hatch and observe all the predatory behavior.

All the owl pellets we have found are small voles, mice and occasionally a squirrel or larger rodent. We have never found evidence of any type of bird being digested by the Owls and we do know their regular roost. Of course, it doesn’t mean they have never killed a bird or hawk.

By the way, the last male GHO lived for almost 25 years until he was mortally wounded by a Cooper’s Hawk, three years ago. This left territory open for the new male, who is very small. The old male had three different females who died over the years. As for the young male owl, this is his second mate. The first one (this was the older male’s last mate) died after an unsuccessful nesting attempt.

a.e said:

i think this would have been a cool face off but it was good you separated the two, because my votes were that the hawk would would kill the owl with no problem even with the pack. But I did not believe when you said that great horns kill red tails all the time I even think that they never kill them the hawk is just to powerful and would see it coming even at night their always alert.

Charles said:

Two hawks against one it could be a problem to the owl but Owls are very powerful birds to have as prey. Hawks can even hurt eagles. I saw a documentary when a eagle was at the top or a tree when two red tailed hawks saw it, they attacked her. She had to fly for safety and tried to get away as soon as possible. Now Owls can kill eagles and hawks too. It depends of everything and everywhere. Owls normally grab birds by their necks and holding them on the ground. Many eagles were killed during the night because of that. Owls attacks anything or anyone, They are very brave birds. On youtube there is a video where a eagle was on the top of owl on the ground, However we can’t see if its a real owl. We can see there is a bird, anyway the photographer stated both birds fought for 20 minutes on the ground and in the end the eagle won. On the youtube itself there is a video of a grey hornet owls eating a juvenal golden eagle. The reality is there is not weaker or stronger, They all can hurt each other, The same as a lion can do to a tiger or a tiger can do to a lion. Normally tigers are stronger but they could get killed by lions too.
Thanks for sharing this information. I saw onces a great Hornet Owls attacking eagle during the night, the eagle had to abandoned her next because the owl threw her off the nest. I love birds of prey.

nerry said:

Kudos to Debbie and the birding group for interrupting the almost fatal encounter!

Shay said:

all of the people who are offended by what Frank Morse said should really try to educate themselves. IT IS SIMPLY NOT YOUR PLACE to interfere with predator/prey or agnostic behavior that occurs even if you happen to witness it happen to an animal YOU happen to have been habitually documenting. You are simply ignorant for 1st getting involved, and second for continuing to attempt to justify your ignorance of the natural world. If you are not mature enough to sit back and observe the natural cycle play out, they maybe you should stick to watching nature from afar; this way, when you see something you don’t like you can simply turn away as opposed to succumbing to your ‘human rational’ and bias…Horned owls are ferocious predators that kill everything under 20lbs including peoples house pets like cats and dogs…go ask a couple biologist what they think of what you did…anyone who agrees with you really needs to grow up and refrain from the misplaced & ignorant self-righteousness on this issue.

gina demetriou said:

I have been watching a baby owl all morning sitting in a tree in my yard. He is very large but has some downey feathers. The mother is across the street watching. I have so far heard and seen crows messing with the mother and now a red tailed hawk. I, too, will run out screaming if I see the hawk go for the baby. However, the mother is huge and shouldn’t have a problem with the hawk. I am just curious as to why the baby hasn’t flown back towards the mother. I believe that’s where the nest may be. I thought owls came out flying at night.

Chris said:

Honestly it’s best to let nature handle itself and usually it is advantageous. On the other hand I truly relate and have many animals at my house that I would defend. While they are not my pets, they are still part of something that you care about. You shouldn’t feel bad about what you did. It was a reaction and sometimes human emotion involves protection.