Mount Auburn Cemetery is an ideal home for a predatory raptor. The endless array of tombstones and uniform landscape make for an excellent hunting ground for squirrels, chipmunks, rats, and mice. I spotted this red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) about eight meters in front of me, just before it leapt into the air silently, soared low over the ground and crashed down into a bush. Because of the repeated pouncing I was almost certain the hawk would pull something out of the shrubbery, but unfortunately it was unable to secure its prey. Afterwards the hawk flew very close to us and landed on a large tombstone. It seemed almost entirely focused on locating other nearby prey but made penetrating eye contact with us a few times.
Red-tailed hawks are an extremely adaptable species, distributed throughout almost all North American biomes (excluding the high arctic and desert ecosystems with less than sparse vegetation). They are also prospering residents in the growing urban world. Skyscrapers and buildings above flat ground provide an adequate layout for the raptors to nest in and hunt from. Red-tails are thought to be most successful in urban environments near parks which simulate more of a natural hunting ground. In some ways this can be seen as a more pronounced habitat arrangement to the deciduous woodlands and adjacent grasslands they occupy. Cities harbor substantial populations of mice, rats, and pigeons, so food abundance doesn’t appear to be as much of a constraint. However, the city life has its dangers. Nestling mortality is much higher than in natural environments, fatal collisions occur with windows and man-made objects, and disease transmission may also be impacted. Some reports claim that raptor territories are significantly reduced in cities, even overlapping, possibly due to spatial constraints for nesting sites. It will be fascinating to see how raptor ecology and behavior continues to develop in human-modified habitats.