EAST CHATHAM, N.Y. >> As the sun rises a little later each day, pinpoints of light twinkle and glisten here and there across the pristine snow. The long, early morning shadows through the woods look like a forest imprinted on the ground.
Small birds, now thwarted by the snow and ice from finding edible berries and seeds, flock to the feeders. More and more chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, juncoes and finches join the regular posse of hungry jays and mourning doves. The woodpeckers come and go pecking away at the suet. The tribe of turkeys leaves giant three-pronged tracks in the no longer unbroken snow cover.
When an icy wind is not blowing, I venture out along the road. For the most part, it is silent save for the inky black crows and ravens that crankily converse with one another as they take to the cloudy gray skies. Invariably, though, I flush a red-tailed hawk as I approach the pond.
One doesn't necessary notice this large, imposing bird if it is perched and silent high above the road. These avians are rather skittish and will take to the air as soon as they focus their brilliant yellow eyes on an intruding, "untranslatable" human. But no fear, they rarely fly far and you'll find them perched again down the road a'ways.
If they are soaring though, they will call: with a raspy, scratchy kreeee-eee-ar, kreee-ee-ar. If you have never noticed it as you wander around, you will have heard it in many a film. Sound editors love this sound and no matter what bird you see on the screen or where the film takes place, eagles, osprey, falcons and kites all emulate the redtail's "barbaric yawp."
Red-tailed hawks, Buteo jamaicensis, are the largest of the buteos, hawks that have rather broad wings and short tails. They are brownish with a white belly smeared by a dark band. Most noticeably, though, is the flashy red tail easily seen as the bird soars and swirls up in the sky. Make a note that the first and second year birds will have tails that are more burnt sienna than bright orangy-red. Subspecies may be darker or lighter, so check your field guide when you are birding across the country.
Redtails are currently the most common hawk across America and Canada and may be found in a multitude of habitats: in woodlands, near rivers, by open pastures, over prairies, around deserts, in rainforests, next to the interstate. In the literature from the 19th century, red-shouldered hawks were more prevalent. Back then all predators were hunted and shot by trappers and farmers because they were though to be indiscriminate predators. Redtails, falsely accused of being chickenhawks, rarely raid the coops.
Redtails under siege
Ordinary folk hunted them too...for fun!!!. Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania was a place of massive hawk slaughters during migration until the conservationist, Rosalie Edge, created Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Today, you can sit and count as thousands and thousands of ospreys, falcons, buteos, accipiters and eagles soar and swoop, glide and zip to the winter homes.
To make matters worse, in the 1930's, DDT was developed as a very effective pesticide, used not only by farmers but also by municipalities for controlling all and sundry insects. Since hawks are on top of the avian food chain, concentrations of DDT from the devoured prey devastated the breeding ability of these birds. Eggshells thinned to the point of not solidifying. Weak nestlings died in the nest. It was not until DDT was banned in 1972 (thank you, Rachel Carson) that this entire majestic family was able to make a comeback.
Eagles soar again; ospreys fish the rivers and lakes; falcons breed on buildings and under bridges; and redtails are everywhere throughout New England. In our area, redtails are definitely the most common hawk in the wintertime. Our breeding residents may migrate a little south, but those that breed in Canada migrate to northern US and are quite prevalent here.
Take a trip to Albany and count the number you see perched along Route I-90 eyeing the ground for any rodent movement. One recent afternoon we spotted eight along the way into Albany, some perched, some flying and even one on the median strip, ripping apart prey with talon and beak.
On a trip to New York City down the Taconic Parkway, we once counted 18 on a clear February day. By that time of year, these hawks are prepping for breeding. They re-locate their mates (redtails mate for life), re-woo each other and skydance or sidle together on a branch. If you find two on a branch, the larger one is the female.
Many hawks like the redtail breed in March, just a little later than the owls. Both being predators they breed earlier than other birds to ensure a good food supply for their young. Their hatchlings need that protein provided by eggs and nestlings of smaller birds, easy picking for these powerful parents. How clever of nature to stagger breeding times and brood size to ensure survival of the raptors!
Finding a red-tailed hawk (termed spotted here) either perched or soaring always reminds me of Section 52 of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": "The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering./ I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable,/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."