JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University (ETSU) sees a wide variety of students walk its halls, but not many on-campus residents can soar the skies or subsist on a diet of small mammals.

Over the last few years, ETSU has played host to a family of red-tailed hawks that keep a close eye on campus activities. The 2.5-foot-tall birds of prey live in a large nest right next to the school’s carillon at the top of a massive pine tree. It’s the tallest one on campus and offers a commanding view of the area.

The nest’s adults leave to hunt and then return to feed their young. (Photo/WJHL, Ben Gilliam)

Dr. Fred Alsop, professor emeritus and a lead voice behind ETSU’s network of EagleCams, spoke to News Channel 11 about what kind of habitat a school presents.

Hawks are picky about their living arrangements, and it’s not uncommon for a breeding pair to relocate a nest if things aren’t working out. This family, however, has decided to settle in.

“Once they get a good nest site, they’ll often come back to it,” Alsop said. “Year after year after year.”

Red-tailed hawks prefer small mammals like squirrels or chipmunks as prey. Faster animals like small birds are too much effort. (Photo/WJHL, Ben Gilliam)

Something special is keeping these hawks on campus, and Alsop said the climate is a big part of the equation.

“We’re far enough south that our birds, just like our bald eagles, are non-migratory,” Alsop said. “They’re not forced to come somewhere else. So these birds have it pretty easy.”

The pine tree itself offers some amenities as well. Alsop said the evergreen tree offers protection from view and weather in all four seasons.

“They like large trees, often they will nest in a wood lot or the edge of a wood lot,” Alsop said. “We’ve got sort of a wood lot here on campus. They also will prefer trees that give a lot of shelter, and that big pine tree behind us, which is going to stay evergreen all year long even though the birds are not going to be using it, is an ideal spot for them.”

The lightly-colored head of the breeding pair’s baby can be found at the edge of the nest. (Photo/WJHL, Ben Gilliam)

As of April 2023, there appear to be two that live in the nest. The adult breeding pair have successfully raised several young hawks, and the family has spread to cover other areas on campus.

“Along with human habitation come animals that are not native like house mice and rats,” Alsop said. “But we augment that with the native population of grey squirrels and chipmunks and other small mammals that occur on campuses.”

ETSU’s campus is known for a wide variety of wildlife, including the occasional black bear on the grounds. Local squirrel populations have had to look over their shoulder before posing for photos now that the hawk family is in town.

“Our birds here are living among lots of other birds on campus that they don’t bother and can’t catch, but our squirrels are getting a little bit on the iffy side,” Alsop said. “They’re looking up more than they used to.”

Alsop said it seems unlikely that the hawk population on campus is going anywhere soon.

While these images are taken with high-powered lenses, the large raptors are visible from quite a distance. (Photo/WJHL, Ben Gilliam)

“They’re going to stay in the neighborhood,” Alsop said. “The young will stay in the area within a few square miles, probably for most of their life.”

Since the nest is in the middle of campus, Alsop said the family is well-acclimated to human activity.

“They’re not shy,” Alsop said. “They see people all the time.”

While the adult birds come and go throughout the day, patient hawk watchers can take a seat at the carillon and wait for the signature hawk scream before they start trying to catch a glimpse.