Bald eagles, red-tailed hawks offer spectacle as they battle for Harmar nest

Mary Ann Thomas
| Monday, March 25, 2013, 10:16 a.m.

A wildlife drama is unfolding along a ridge above Route 28 in Harmar as a pair of bald eagles vie with a pair of red-tailed hawks for a nest.

The eagles' nest is among the first in Allegheny County in decades. Bald eagles are on Pennsylvania's list of threatened birds.

The eagles in Harmar are playing to a crowd: The number of eagle watchers continues to swell along Freeport Road, with people bringing binoculars, telescopes, and long-range camera lenses to catch a glimpse of the majestic birds.

And they're fretting over the clash of the aerial titans. Wildlife officials confirmed that the Harmar nest was first built and used by a pair of red-tailed hawks last year.

“Hey, it was their nest first and they finally got their house in order and then some eagle comes in and takes over,” said someone in the crowd of nest watchers last week.

“Can't the eagles just beat up the hawks?” an eagle fan chimed in.

In the past few weeks, the eagles and hawks have put on spectacular aerial displays and attacks, with both species of birds sitting at the nest at different times.

“Red-tailed hawks, while only one-third the size of the bald eagle, are aggressive in their territory to many different species of birds,” said Brian Shema, a naturalist and operations director of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania.

“Intruders to the hawks' breeding territory are often met with an aerial confrontation — an aggressive, charging flight which results in wing-to-wing contact is most common, though talon grappling is not uncommon,” he said.

Bald eagles are more passive and prefer to use their presence, postures or vocalizations to ward off intruders, Shema said.

“However, when eagles are actively harassed, such as those in Harmar Township, they will occasionally respond,” he said.

“Despite their size, bald eagles will barrel roll in flight while extending their massive talons toward their aggressor,” Shema said. “Physical contact with their aggressor is rare, but can result in fatalities when it occurs.”

Although the Harmar eagles have been carrying branches to build up the nest this year, they are not expected to lay eggs as the pair is young and new, according to local naturalists. While that could happen, naturalists say the birds are more likely to lay eggs in the nest next year.

Because the birds are not incubating eggs, they are not tethered to the nest site. They visit it sporadically through out most days.

Competition for a nest is not unusual.

In fact, a pair of eagles evicted a pair of red-tails from a nest close to Allentown last year, according to Patricia Barber, endangered bird biologist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

“The same thing that makes the red-tailed hawk think it's a good place to nest is also appealing to the eagles,” Barber said. “It probably has a good view.”

Since the nesting season of the red-tails starts later in the spring than the eagles, Barber said that the red-tails will likely fight for a while and then leave for another nest.

If the bald eagles lay eggs this year at the Harmar nest, the tables could turn, Shema said.

“They will defend their nest from hawks and other birds.”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or

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