One of the hawks soars past Highland’s acute-care tower. Credit: Amir Aziz

The triangularly shaped Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus on 14th Avenue in East Oakland is built on a gentle hill, with the newer, sleek glass towers housing the emergency room and acute care at the top, and the institution’s old Spanish Baroque halls, built in 1927 and topped with ornate cupolas, at the bottom. The buildings and paths resemble an old university that’s grown into the modern age. At the center of the healthcare complex is an enormous courtyard planted with a fragrant landscape of native and drought-tolerant flora.

Many of the patient rooms, offices, and hallways have panoramic views of this courtyard, which fills up at lunchtime each day with doctors, nurses, other staff, and visitors. And for the past several months, a pair of red-tailed hawks have put on a show for Highland, perching like sentries on the rooftops around the courtyard, scanning the ground, gracefully swooping between trees—and dive-bombing prey.

You may have heard of U.C. Berkeley’s celebrity falcons. Now it seems Oakland’s Highland Hospital has its own fine-feathered story to tell.

The hawks, which have yet to be granted names by an adoring public, raised at least one, and possibly two chicks this spring in a nest on the southern end of the campus. They’ve become beloved inhabitants of the East Oakland healthcare center, and a symbol of the many creatures that make little rewilded pockets of Oakland their home.

The Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus’ new courtyard drew the hawks to its center

Highland’s central courtyard was transformed from a parking lot into a lush garden several years ago. Credit: Amir Aziz

Steve Hosman has worked for Alameda Health System, the public agency that operates Highland, for 18 years. He maintains the garden and has watched over the past couple of years as it has attracted more wildlife like hummingbirds, wrens, and butterflies. Before it was a garden, the courtyard was a sterile parking lot.

“It was just a docking bay where trucks would make deliveries. No plants,” said Hosman.

Today, the trees in the courtyard still aren’t big enough to entice a bird as big as a hawk to nest there, though. With wingspans of four feet, red tails, or Buteo jamaicensis, are among the largest birds in North America. According to the Oakland Zoo, they can live up to 20 years in the wild, although many die young.

Ann Nomura, a physical therapist who has worked at Highland for 28 years, first noticed the hawks in late April or early May.

“​​You’d see this big bird silhouetted in the courtyard,” said Nomura. “That’s when I noticed them, when they made the courtyard their territory. I think the garden brought in so many birds, that’s a lot of what they’re eating. And there’s a ground squirrel population on the other side.”

One of the red tailed hawks that calls Highland Hospital home soars above the healthcare campus on Tuesday, June 28, 2022. Credit: Amir Aziz

The birds frequently rest atop the eight-story acute-care tower, swiveling their heads and gazing down among the bushes and grass for prey. Nomura has seen clusters of freshly plucked pigeon feathers atop the hospital buildings and below tree perches. The hawks also wait patiently in the cedar and redwood trees on the 14th Avenue side of the hospital, springing into action when they spot ground squirrels or other rodents.

Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus’ 60,000 square foot courtyard was completed two years ago by landscape architects Keller Mitchell & Co., contractor Park West, and Cynthia Greenberg of ReScape. The garden captures rainwater through its permeable pavement and flower beds which feature over 40 plant species, half of which are natives like manzanita, live oak, and willow.

“Hawks fly right by patients’ windows,” said Nomura. “They’re most active at dawn and dusk.”

Two chicks learn to fly

The hawks raised their chicks in a nest high up in a cedar tree. Credit: Amir Aziz

Red tails are very territorial. Pairs often stay together for many years to mate and fend off rivals. Females, much larger than males, normally lay two or three eggs each year.

Highland’s hawks nested high up in a cedar tree on the edge of the campus this spring. The big jumble of twigs and branches in a crook of the tree has been around for many years, said Hosman.

“A month or so ago I noticed the babies,” Hosman said. “I’d see the two parents bring food to them, or see a bunch of [pigeon] feathers on the ground.”

The parents fed and cared for their offspring until a few weeks ago, when Nomura and Hosman noticed the fledglings had grown large enough to venture out into the world.

“For a couple of days they were on the branches, testing out their wings,” said Hosman.

Then the baby hawks tried flying, gliding to the ground while a protective parent watched from above in a nearby tree. Nomura filmed one of the juveniles practicing flying last Thursday. The bird walked along branches and fluttered from perch to perch while loudly squawking.

The young birds appear to have moved on. The hospital staff hasn’t seen them for a few days now.

When The Oaklandside visited the Wilma Chan Highland Hospital Campus earlier today one of the adult hawks, probably the female, was perched atop the acute care tower surveying her domain. As photographer Amir Aziz snapped pictures of her from the courtyard, he said he felt like she was looking down right at him.

Red-tailed hawks aren’t endangered. In fact, there’s an estimated population of over 2 million in North America. But while they’re a frequent sight in the Oakland hills, they’re much less common below the I-580, where there are fewer trees and fields where they’d need to hunt and roost. And like other bird species, they face threats from poisoning, shootings, habitat destruction, car collisions, and climate change.

Nomura, the physical therapist, credits Highland’s expanded gardens and preservation of large trees for creating a unique urban habitat where the hospital’s resident hawks can thrive. She hopes the birds bring joy to visitors and staff alike.

And while you have to visit Highland to see them, she thinks the red tails could become internet stars, if given the chance. “I think there’s a case to be made for a nest cam,” she said. “People are thrilled. They’re absolute fans.”

Before joining The Oaklandside as News Editor, Darwin BondGraham worked with The Appeal, where he was an investigative reporter covering police and prosecutorial misconduct. He has reported on gun violence for The Guardian, and was an enterprise reporter for the East Bay Express. BondGraham's work has also appeared with KQED, ProPublica and other leading national and local outlets. He holds a doctorate in sociology from UC Santa Barbara and was the co-recipient of the George Polk Award for local reporting in 2017.