Rita soars through the air outside of Carleton's Southam Hall during a sunny spring day.

“Rita the red-tailed hawk” Spotted on Campus

By Kirsten Fenn. Photos by John Frederick.

An unusual new critter on campus could be giving Rodney the Raven a run for his money as Carleton’s favourite bird.

The female red-tailed hawk – nicknamed Rita – was spotted on a ledge of the sixth floor of Southam Hall on Wednesday, April 27, squawking at staff and peering through windows with her beady brown eyes.

While predatory red-tailed hawks soar in silence, Rita caused “quite a stir,” said John Frederick, the CUOL technician who first noticed her outside his office at 625 Southam and gave her the nickname.

“I’m an avid bird watcher, so I thought this was great,” Frederick said. “But a lot of people were startled by her. They’d never seen a bird this big.”

Red-tailed hawks can grow to 65 centimetres in height, with a wingspan of more than a metre, according to National Geographic.

That’s what caught Frederick’s eye last week when he noticed Rita soaring by Paterson Hall and over Kailash Mital Theatre with widespread white-speckled wings, before she perched on a tree at the edge of the quad.

He’s been keeping track of her whereabouts and taking photos, just like he did last April when another unexpected animal – that time a wild turkey – made a visit to campus for several weeks.

He said Rita had been collecting nesting materials like pine branches and leaving them on the ledge by his office for several days.

According to Biology Prof. Michael Runtz, red-tailed hawks are not uncommon in urban areas like Ottawa. They’re one of the most common hawks in Ontario, known to hang around Highway 401 or even the Rideau Canal, he said.

“But if they were nesting on campus, that would be unusual,” Runtz said.

They tend to make their home in large trees like pines, he said, although those do exist on campus. They also prefer open spaces like fields, where they can scour the ground for prey, such as mice, rabbits and moles.

Frederick hasn’t seen Rita in a few days though. The last time he heard, she had been swarmed by a group of crows near MacOdrum Library on the evening of Monday, May 2.

“They’re worried about (Rita) attacking their young, because the crows are nesting here as well,” he said, adding that he’s seen her chasing squirrels around campus.

Runtz said if a red-tailed hawk is ambitious enough, it might even take a dive at a groundhog.

Perhaps Rita is giving Carleton’s unofficial mascot a run for its money, too.

Either way, “I wish her well,” said Frederick.

Rita sits on a branch near Southam Hall.Rita sits on a ledge at Southam Hall.A close-up of Rita's face from behind the glass as she peers through a window.