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Red-Tailed Hawks Keep Watch Over UVA's Alderman Library Renovation

Wed June 08, 2022 - National Edition
UVA Today

Skanska Construction employees watch one of the hawks that have been frequenting the Alderman Library construction site. (Photo courtesy of UVA Today website)
Skanska Construction employees watch one of the hawks that have been frequenting the Alderman Library construction site. (Photo courtesy of UVA Today website)

A pair of hawks have been so ubiquitous and unfazed by workers at the University of Virginia's main library construction and renovation site that they have become the project's mascots.

Workers at the Charlottesville job site have often spotted an adult red-tailed hawk, the most widespread of the species in North America, and a younger hawk perched on railings, equipment and posts in the construction area.

The birds' willingness to stay put as workers move around nearby is "quite extraordinary," said David Carr, a research professor in UVA's Department of Environmental Sciences.

The hawks have been such frequent visitors to the building site that an image of one was included on the design of a T-shirt given out in May at the topping-out ceremony of the Alderman Library. The event marked the installation of the highest beams on the project.

"We noticed the hawk around the same time we put up the crane," said Shane Wood, project manager of Skanska USA Building Inc., the contractor of the project. He added that the 178-ft. crane was erected almost two years ago in August 2020.

"It likes to hang out," Wood told UVA Today, a University of Virginia student-produced news site. "There is no nest that we know of."

What Do Hawks Like About Library Site?

Carr suggested the bird could be using the construction area as a hunting ground, though he said they range miles for food.

"They mainly prey on small mammals — squirrels, rats, rabbits, anything in that size category would be prime for them," he explained. "With all that exposed ground, I imagine there has been a lot of disturbance over there that has made prey more obvious."

Kit Meyer, a senior project manager for the university's facilities management office, agreed with the hunting idea.

"The gravel lay-down yard has a lot of hiding spots, but in between them the gravel pad is pretty exposed, which might make for easy hunting," she said.

If it is a hunting area, the adult bird could be teaching the younger bird how to hunt, Carr told UVA Today. He confirmed there were at least two birds — an adult hawk with a solid russet tail and a terminal black band, and a young hawk with a strongly banded tail.

"You'd never know for sure, but if I had to guess, this is a parent and young," he told the UVA news source. "Perhaps the young bird is getting a hunting lesson. That might explain the resistance to flushing with the workers around. But frankly, I've just never seen a red-tail hawk hold its ground like that."

Carr did not think the older bird was seeking leftovers from the lunches of construction workers.

"I doubt they will go for it," he said. "They will do some scavenging. I've seen red-tailed hawks on roadkill deer carcasses and some things like that, but for the most part they are looking for live prey to grab."

Wood said the construction crews have been vigilant about removing food scraps from the area.

"We always try to clean up food waste for rodents in general," she said in comments to UVA Today "We do not leave food out for [the hawks]."

Larger Raptor May Be Looking for Its Old Nest

Several people on the UVA campus have speculated that the bird had a nest on the library building or in one of the trees that was taken down to accommodate the construction.

Another wild bird expert, Jon Little, agreed with that assessment and noted that red-tailed hawks will re-nest near the original if their nest is destroyed or predated.

Carr said hawks like large, tall trees and have been noted at times to nest on buildings.

"With all the big trees on the [UVA grounds], it is not impossible to think that the bird is breeding somewhere nearby," Carr said. "Years ago, there was a red-tailed hawk nest right outside of Clark Hall, and that is one case where they bred [here]."

Brenda Loewen, senior project manager of planning and construction in UVA's facilities management department, said that no one at the library had recalled seeing the birds before the renovation started, though she added, "that could just be because it was up high. The hawk makes regular appearances in my construction update presentations to the library, and the staff is totally enamored with our haughty winged friend."

When library personnel tour the construction site, she said to UVA Today, they are often more interested in the birds than the building.

"We would show them this incredibly expensive, complex and transformative project and all they would remember is the hawk," Meyer said. "They are the ones who informally made the hawk our mascot."

And the hawks are not the only wildlife around the Alderman Library construction site.

A fox was seen in 2021 trotting across the green and along the walkways in front of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library and Clemons Library, which are next to the Alderman.

Meyer also remembered a skunk that was found on another UVA construction site.

"He was in a section of pipe — no one knew he was there until the pipe was picked up by a forklift," he said. "The little fellow ran out the end of the pipe, fell or jumped, landed and ran away. He came back, though. He was spotted in the same area several times."

Yes Virginia, a Building Project Also is Happening

According to the university's online page about the Alderman Library renovation project, UVA's goal is to bring the building up to current standards of safety, accessibility, and service. The enterprise is essential to restore the main library to the position it enjoyed when it first opened in 1938 — a contemporary library with modern amenities suited to the needs of its users.

Officials with the public college, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819, hope to have the library construction completed in the fall of 2023.

It involves building a new, 130,000-sq.-ft. addition on roughly the same footprint of today's stacks, while renovating another 100,000 sq. ft. of the historic library.

The upgraded Alderman Library is to include open shelving for UVA's extensive holdings as well as study areas, reading rooms, staff work areas and spaces for scholarly research and the preservation of books. Two interior light wells will be enclosed with a glass roof to become study courts.

The project will enhance circulation to the university's central grounds with a new north entrance facing University Avenue.

Chicago-based HBRA Architects, along with the design firm of Clark Nexsen in Virginia Beach, designed the new Alderman Library to feature more natural light, improve climate control, add more accessibility and install more open spaces.

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