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,
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.

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