Hawks Make Downtown Sioux City Fire Escape Their Home

Three fledgling hawks can be seen on the fire escape of the Orpheum Building in downtown Sioux City, Iowa, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. It’s not uncommon for hawks to take up residence in an urban setting, said Dawn Snyder, education programs director at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. Red-tailed hawks tend to nest in the same location or nearby each year. (Jesse Brothers/Sioux City Journal via AP)
Nick Hytrek
Sioux City Journal


If you were a hawk, imagine soaring over wide-open spaces that offer a wide view of your surroundings and potential prey.

Maybe you should share that vision with a certain family of red-tailed hawks that prefers city life.

Instead of finding a nice tall tree in a rural area, they’ve taken up residence on the fire escape on downtown Sioux City’s Orpheum Electric Building, high above the streets below, providing an up-close nature documentary to those aware the raptors are there.

“We’ve been watching her for two years. She’s a joy to watch. She keeps the pigeons away, that’s for sure,” said Haus Truelove, a contractor and on-site superintendent for BSI Constructors, which is completing renovations of the Warrior Hotel and adjacent Davidson Building across the street from the Orpheum.

Standing on the Warrior Hotel roof, Truelove has a bird’s-eye view of the nest on the other side of Sixth Street. Three fledglings, two larger than the other, occupy the nest, a wide bowl made of sticks on the seventh-floor landing, while their parents are away.

While observing the three young hawks recently, they waited patiently for an adult to arrive with their next meal. Fuzz on their heads shows they’re not quite old enough to start flying yet, but they frequently stretched their wings, seemingly practicing for the day when they take flight.

Orpheum Theatre manager Tim McCormick has watched hawks alternate nests on the seventh and eighth floor on the building’s fire escape for the past three years. He appreciates the job they do keeping the pigeon population under control.

“I want her to stay there,” he told the Sioux City Journal. “She cleans up the pigeons. When she’s gone, we have pigeons in the alley. When she’s there, they’re gone.”

You might wonder why hawks would choose to nest in the city, where fledglings learning to fly face potentially dangerous encounters with cars and buildings.

It’s not uncommon for hawks to take up residence in an urban setting, said Dawn Snyder, education programs director at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center. She’s not sure why they choose city life, but it’s possible they were driven away from an open location when younger and settled downtown. Red-tailed hawks tend to nest in the same location or nearby each year.

Snyder said she’s heard of hawks living downtown for years. She wouldn’t be surprised if other raptors have become city-dwellers as well.

“There’s definitely an opportunity in our urban landscape for them to survive,” Snyder said. “There is a great food supply downtown.”

Based on the observations of Truelove and McCormick, pigeons are a staple of the hawks’ diet. Remains of squirrels and rabbits also have been spotted nearby.

According to audubon.org, both the male and female red-tailed hawk sit on the nest with the eggs. Once the eggs hatch, the female stays with the young much of the first few weeks, tearing the food brought by the male into small pieces to feed the growing children. Fledglings leave the nest about six to seven weeks after hatching, but aren’t capable of strong flight for at least two weeks. The young birds may remain with their parents for several more weeks.

Snyder said that unless a fledgling is in the street or appears injured, downtown pedestrians should leave them alone if they encounter one on the ground. The youngsters are usually able to return to the nest, and Truelove said he’s seen them hop up fire escape steps.

A family of hawks delayed demolition of the Davidson Building’s fire escape in 2019, Truelove said. When workers were ready to tear the structure down that January, they discovered a hawk sitting on a nest with four eggs. After consulting with naturalists, they left the fire escape alone until the fledglings left about six months later.

Truelove believes the hawks moved across the street to the Orpheum, though McCormick said hawks have been nesting there for three years.

Regardless of where the hawks relocated from, Truelove said it’s been a joy to watch them nest and raise their young on the Orpheum’s fire escape the past two years.

“The Orpheum is a better place for her. It’s less invasive for her there,” Truelove said. “Every once in a while she’ll fly by here and give you a screech.”

This story first appeared in The Sioux City Journal. It was distributed as a member exchange story by The Associated Press.

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