Red-tailed Hawk overhead
Like many people, I often become lost in the numerous classifications of hawks. With three Accipiters and six Buteos, all with multiple seasonal and regional differences in their feathered coats, it is no wonder. However, I may be able to help you identify what is arguably the most prevalent and accessible hawk in the United States, the Red-tailed Hawk.
(No, you can’t always tell by the tail as some are very reddish, others brownish.) Here’s how to tell:
1. From underneath, by the darker (or lighter in some cases) patagial bars on the underwing’s leading edges. (See above.)
2. By the pale, unmarked shield-like breastplate. (At left.)
3. By the haunting tones of their cries, shrill cries that, unlike other hawks, trail off to stillness.
One day last autumn, I was over at Grizzly Island in Solano County photographing three Red-tails flying in and out of a small grove of trees when they began calling back and forth, the sounds gripping me with their wild beauty, hitting me with an urge move to where I could hear their haunting calls every day.
A well-known red-tail, Pale Male and one or another of his mates, have nested and raised chicks for many years high atop a Manhattan skyscraper, a good hunting perch.
Central Park is home to many resident Red-tails. Twelve years ago a pair, known as Mama and Papa moved to Queens and now there are 24 pairs of Red-tails that perch on skyscrapers, antenna, tall bridges as they scour the landscape for rodents.
So now, when you see a Hawk on a pole you can tell your friends, “That’s a Red-tailed Hawk,” or, “I can’t make out what it is but it’s not a Red-tail.” And your grandkids will think you are soooo smart!
Good places to watch hawks are the 1000 hawk migration sites across North America. Every spring and fall the Hawk Migration Association of North America publishes lists of all reported data from the member sites.
The Red-tail on the left brings home a large field mouse for dinner.
Once in a while, at the right time of the year, you may see a red-tailed Hawk with a red tail, like this one below.
You can learn lots more about Hawks and Hawking at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory http://www.ggro.org/
The Hawk Migration Association of North America http://www.hmana.org/
A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors, Wheeler & Clark;
Hawks of North America 2nd Ed., Clark & Wheeler;
Hawks from Every Angle, Liguori;
Raptors of the World, Ferguson-Lees & Christie
Your comments & questions much appreciated