December: Red-Tailed Hawk
Here we are – the final month of the 2022 calendar and the last month of our year long program, the Year of the Birds. It truly has been a pleasure writing about the myriad of birds that inhabit our neighborhoods here in the Philadelphia area and the wonders they bring right to our own backyards. Whether you are a seasoned birder or a recent addition to the bird watching community, we hope you enjoyed the full year of programming and education that Awbury has provided.
While I am a little sad that the year is coming to a close, there is no better bird to conclude this series other than December’s bird of the month, which has always held a very special place in my heart ever since I can remember. The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), a magnificent raptor that can be easily spotted by anyone interested in birding, is the perfect bird to conclude our series.
Take a long drive anywhere this time of year and the sky typically draws your attention upwards. With no leaves on the trees and long stretches of road ahead, looking skyward was always an easy way to pass time when my family and I would take drives to central PA for weekend excursions. We wouldn’t have to get far out of the suburbs before specs would begin to dot the lofty, wispy clouds that always seem to define a crisp late fall or winter’s day.
When I was very young, those specs looked unrecognizable, but as years went on, my trained eye could see a pair of wings that propelled these birds with effortless beats. One remarkable day, one of those specs seemed to keep pace with our vehicle, giving a rapid flap of its wings every ten seconds or so to match our speed. While it was still flying very high, I remember its form twisting suddenly with a quick shift of its wings, and before I had time to shield my eyes from the sun, the bird was eclipsing its light. As if I was looking through a stain glass window, the speckled brown and white wings and the resplendent red tail feathers were illuminated like I had never seen them before. That was the first time I truly saw the breathtaking color and form of a Red-tailed Hawk.
I wanted to include my own personal story about this special bird in hopes that others, too, have had similar encounters with this raptor. One of the most common birds of prey across North and Central America, the Red-tailed Hawk is a tried-and-true raptor that is always a treat to see. You will spot one circling above open fields or perched atop a telephone pole most times, but don’t think you have to take to the open road to see one. I see one of these hawks almost every time I drive on I-76, and I’ve even seen one sitting nonchalantly on traffic light on North Broad Street.
Red-tailed Hawks are about 17-22 inches tall with a wingspan between 45-52 inches in length. Their wings are broad, and their tails are rather short, proportionally making them look much bigger in the sky. You may even mistake a large female for an eagle. As depicted in my vignette, white underbellies with darker outlines to their wings define them if you are looking from below, and in the off chance you see one from above or view their wings beating, their tops are almost completely brown. Of course, a red tail is the easiest way to confirm a sighting.
Similar to the Great Horned Owl, the Red-tailed Hawk is a master predator. Small mammals, birds, and reptiles including squirrels, voles, rabbits, rats, snakes, bats, frogs, and other birds (up to the size of pheasants) don’t want to be spotted by this raptor when it’s hungry. But the owl could learn a thing or two when it comes to hawk hunting, as some of these hawks have been seen pursuing prey in pairs to reap more of a meal.
The Red-tailed Hawk is pretty easy to spot outside, but another way you can experience this bird’s presence is by going to the movies. You heard me right – this bird is a movie star, or at least its call is. Ever see a western where the cowboy protagonist is riding alone through the desert? You may hear a lone eagle soaring high above him, almost taunting the character with a powerful cry as he makes his way towards some fated duel. That eagle, while looking good on screen, actually does a pretty poor job at sounding intimidating in real life. That call you hear is actually a Red-tailed Hawk’s cry dubbed over the eagle. The more you know!
For more information about the Red-tailed Hawk, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website. And for tips and tricks about attracting other birds you enjoy, visit their Project FeederWatch for community-based tips, resources, and photographs.