What Kind of Hawk is That?

red-tailed Hawk in downstroke

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.

red-tailed hawk perchingThere are three ways to tell if the Hawk you spot is a Red-tail.

(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.

Red-tailed Hawk Calls

Red-tailed Hawk, Immature

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.

Red-tailed Hawk in flapping take-offRed-tailed Hawks live in a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including dry deserts, grasslands,  forests,  farmland, urban and  suburban areas.

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!

red-tailed hawk searching for prey

soaring red-tail with field mouseLook for Hawks on top of telephone poles by plowed fields, atop cliffs or in tree tops where they patiently watch for prey.

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.

A really red tail

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/

Recommended reading:
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

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4 Responses to What Kind of Hawk is That?

  1. Susan Ivancic says:

    The Silver Express started arriving after my recent retirement. Your column has added to my enjoyment of birding and the ability of identifying hawks in the area. Recently, after a shopping trip to Costco in Novato, we spotted two red shouldered hawks sitting on the light posts over the on ramps. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but after reading your recent column I understood why they were there. Your photography of these magnificent creatures is phenomenal. I look forward to receiving your weekly bird pictures. Thank you!

  2. Phillipa Lion says:

    One of the most startling things about your pictures, Richard, is the literal capturing of these birds so that we can see them close up. The frustrating thing about birds is that they are so hard to see…they’re always moving, flying, hidden, or too far away. You bring them home to us and I thank you for this gift.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Phillipa,
      Getting close enough is always a problem, being unobtrusive helps, learning their habits helps too. But I am still frustrated at times.
      I have added your name to my weekly bird email list.
      Richard

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