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Encounters | An occasional feature

Terror from above: Red-shouldered hawks attack seniors' heads in retirement community

SPRING HILL — Before they venture into the vast, hostile airspace that threatens their quiet retirement community, before they watch for the swooping shadow and listen for the warning call, the fearful men retrieve their shields of choice.

Al Hoelzer, 71, slaps on a white ball cap.

George Nott, 72, raises his black and white golf umbrella.

And Wally Warren, older than all at 88, secures his tan pith helmet.

Not to avoid the beating sun or pelting rain or unforeseen dangers of an African safari.

No. This armor is for the birds.

• • •

The neighbors first felt talons scrape their scalps in the spring of 2015.

Red-shouldered hawks had been building their home — an expanding mass of twigs and brambles — for weeks in the full Southern live oak that towers over Hoelzer's front yard. He and his wife thought little of it.

This is the Nature Coast, after all.

Hernando County is known for its thriving ecosystem, a web of waterways brimming with wildlife and forests filled with game. Birds — robins, wrens, red-headed woodpeckers — sing the area's soundtrack.

It's the main draw for Hoelzer's neighbors, seniors in New Balance tennis shoes who chose to live out their golden years in Timber Pines, a large gated retirement community for "active adults."

It's neighborly and peaceful, packed with country club and golf courses and golf carts to get to both. Residents must get permission to chop down a tree.

For years, the birds and the seniors lived in harmony on Renown Way.

Then the hawks started dive-bombing. They attacked a frail 90-year-old with peach fuzz for hair, a point of pride after beating cancer and completing chemotherapy. The talons took a chunk of her scalp.

For Warren, a 30-year resident of the neighborhood, the first hit felt like he'd stepped in the path of a falling sack of sugar. He was just trying to retrieve the mail.

Warren ended the day at the Hernando County Health Department, enduring the pinch of a tetanus shot. At least it was free.

Hoelzer was unloading the groceries when he suddenly felt a sharp thud. He thought the trunk door had bitten him. Then he felt the seeping blood.

The bird was already gone.

• • •

In total, the hawks — one male, one female — struck about a dozen times in 2015.

With a wingspan of nearly 4 feet, red-shouldered hawks are most aggressive during nesting season, warning potential predators with quick talon strikes.

Ordinarily, they aren't hostile toward humans, wildlife officials say. But during nesting season, people look like predators.

Hoelzer sought help from neighbor George Nott to remove the nest. They called the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and their senator, Wilton Simpson. But because the birds already had laid their eggs, wildlife officials told the men nothing could be done.

So they endured six more weeks of fear-filled gardening and driveway chats before the babies matured. Yes, begrudgingly, they were cute. But not that cute.

The neighbors secured a permit from the wildlife commission and paid a tree service $200 to topple the nest. When the hawks returned to Hoelzer's tree last month for a second year of nesting, he was ready. He'd looped a long green rope up over the branch that held the old nest, creating an elaborate pulley system to jostle loose the nesting material.

Eventually the hawks gave up — and moved to a tree one lot over.

The terror began again.

• • •

So far, the hawks have hit Warren three times this year. Hence the helmet.

Nott has, somehow, avoided the talons. He's convinced it's because he has more hair on his head. His neighbors aren't so sure.

An electrician took a talon last week. So did Warren's wife.

One neighbor, a hunched man in his 90s, is trying to rehab a bum hip with regular walks. Not even he can catch a break from the hawks.

The once alluring quiet of the neighborhood now feels eerie, like being alone in an empty old house. Each rustling leaf or cawing echo could mean the end has come.

Okay, perhaps that's dramatic.

Nott doesn't care. He's had enough.

"Somebody is going to get hit and die," he says. "I don't want to go to a funeral because of a bird."

This year, he went straight to the top.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Nott wrote: "The 'bird' is a protected species whereas the 'senior citizen' has no recourse (nor protective status apparently) against the attacking hawk. There seems to be a problem with this situation where an animal takes precedence over a human!"

Nott is awaiting the governor's reply.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act looks out for the red-shouldered hawk, making it illegal to move the birds or their nest without proper permits.

But there is one option U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Tom MacKenzie said his office, which oversees the southeast region of the U.S., has offered to Florida wildlife officials: The adult hawks could be trapped and relocated, and their eggs (or babies) could be transported to a rehabilitation facility.

In the meantime, MacKenzie said officials can only recommend that residents be vigilant, and use proper armor.

"Be aware," he said. "Umbrellas aren't a bad idea."

• • •

Standing below the nest, umbrella expanded, Nott and the other old men search for the female hawk. If she already had laid her eggs, she'd be up there, standing guard.

Then a screech, like that eagle that sounds before The Colbert Report.

Safety in numbers?

"No, just more fresh meat," Nott joked.

The old men grumbled about one suggestion they'd heard, that perhaps they could just go buy hard hats.

"Can you imagine us being a hard hat community?" Nott said.

And the suggestion they just need to deal with it?

"No, we don't," Nott said. "We're retired!"

Contact Katie Mettler at kmettler@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @kemettler.

Editor's note: This story has been changed to reflect the following corrections. Timber Pines is the name of the neighborhood where red-shouldered hawks attacked senior citizens. The neighborhood has one country club. An earlier version of this story stated a different neighborhood name and number of country clubs.

About the series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes they may be part of it. To comment or suggest an idea for a story, contact editor John Timpe at jtimpe@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8308.

Terror from above: Red-shouldered hawks attack seniors' heads in retirement community 04/04/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 4:34pm]
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