For about an hour yesterday we had a distinguished guest perched on the largest side branch of our dogwood tree in the back corner of our suburban lot: a Red-Tailed Hawk. The day was sunny but chilly, with temperature hovering in the mid-20° range, and light but occasionally gusty winds. About 10:30 a.m. Jane noticed the large bird perched on the limb. I immediately pulled out the binoculars and maneuvered for a better view. We finally found the best spot: in the bathtub looking out over the roof of the screen porch.
As we worked to identify him, we turned to the Cornell University Ornithology Lab’s website, All About Birds. As a Cornellian who has spent some time at Sapsucker Woods and has depended on the old Roger Tory Peterson guides, I trust them. And they did not fail us. The Red-Tailed Hawk page has some twenty-one photos of that species, and another 25 of the most likely alternate candidates, including the Red-Shouldered Hawk. Running through them, it was clear this was a Red-Tailed Hawk, especially when comparing the appearance of the tail of the birds while perched facing away from the viewer, as ours was. He had a brownish tail, though a bit rufous too, with four visible horizontal bands of black across the feathers. His back had several white splotches among the dark gray-brown color, and his head had a white and brown speckled neck, a dark head, and piercing yellow eyes. The site noted that there is a wide range of color variations in this species, and I was glad to see that, because those bands on the top side of his tail feathers did not exactly match any pattern we saw in the photos. Narrower and more numerous bands were the rule. But the coloring is quite diverse, and there are even regional populations that have been given different names, though apparently they’re all Red Tails. We also learned that this is the most common hawk in America, and if you’re driving anyplace rural and look up you’re apt to see one if you know what you’re looking for.
The site also said that it’s unlikely that you’ll see one in your backyard, because they eat mostly mammals rather than songbirds. But this guy sat on that limb for nearly an hour, moving very little except to restore his balance after a wind gust came along. He did not appear to be anxious, just intent. While he was there, neither a bird nor a squirrel could be seen or heard, except for a couple of distant crows, who seemed unaware of his presence. Apparently the word was out to lie low, however. Eventually he took off and vanished into the sky as swiftly as he had come. I wished him good hunting; our urban natural world is blessed by the presence of such as he.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2014.