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Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk ID

Dear Bird Folks,

Please find the enclosed newspaper clipping that a friend of mine sent me. It is a picture of a hawk sitting on the top of a utility pole. There wasn’t a story but the caption indicated that the bird was a “Red-tailed Hawk.” I’m no bird expert but for the life of me I could not see a red tail. The picture is of some kind of hawk all right, but the tail is all striped. Is the paper wrong or is the name “red tail” not an accurate description of these hawks?

-Bonnie, Gatlinburg, TN


Thanks for the pic Bonnie,

I love those slow news day filler photos. Every paper does that sometimes. Perhaps somebody missed a deadline or the Pope Mobile broke down and his meeting with the local mayor was suddenly canceled. Whatever the reason, the paper needs to scramble to fill space. They often dig out random pictures that don’t have an attached story and are totally unrelated to anything else on the page. The captions usually say something like “Dog waits for its master at bank” or “Duck enjoys a late afternoon swim” or “Pope calls AAA on cell phone.” The newspaper that I write for would never do any of that. When they need filler, they just print another “Ask the Bird Folks” column. They come with built-in filler.

You were right to question the photo Bonnie. Quite often the birds in those random photos are inaccurate, but not this time. The picture that you sent me was, indeed, a Red-tailed Hawk and you were correct in noticing that this particular hawk didn’t have a red tail. Are the Red-tailed Hawks misnamed you ask? No, not at all. They aren’t a bird with a misleading name like, say, the Red-bellied Woodpecker. That’s a bird that could use a better name. I have more red on my shirt after a spaghetti meal at the Olive Garden than that woodpecker will ever have on its belly. This hawk’s name is right on, except for juveniles. It takes a while for Red-tailed Hawks to actually get their red tails. For the first year the bird’s tail is mostly brown with stripes. The bird in your picture was just a youngster, hanging out and counting down the days until those famous red tail feathers of the adult grow in.

The Red-tailed Hawk is ubiquitous in North America. It’s hard to find a habitat that a red tail won’t exploit. They are found from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam. They are also found in the desert, in the rain forest and in downtown Manhattan, where they live on rats, pigeons and fresh H&H Bagels.

It is their ability to adapt to assorted habitats and food sources that makes the Red-tailed Hawk one our most widespread and abundant raptors. Many other birds are far less adaptable. Florida’s Snail Kite is a beautiful bird of prey which feeds almost exclusively on one particular species of snail and that’s it. I have nothing against the escargot crowd, but by limiting its food options, this kite has put itself on Florida’s endangered species list. The Red-tailed Hawk has no such problem. It will eat just about anything it can catch, including snakes, frogs, crabs, gulls, quail, mice, squirrels and out west, jackalopes. Red tails are those large robust hawks that we see sitting on utility poles or dead tree branches along the sides of the highway. They sit stern faced, rarely smiling, while they search the surrounding area for the slightest movement. I always see several of them every time I take a road trip. I would probably see more but my passengers keep nagging at me to watch the road. Boring!

Last week a very thoughtful woman named Barbara from Newton, Massachussetts sent me some information about the Vermont Institute of Natural Science, aka VINS. I’ve been to VINS and it is a wonderful place to learn about hawks and other birds of prey. They have a tremendous collection of rescued raptors. (The “Rescued Raptors”? Weren’t they a punk band from England?) Unfortunately for the birds, many of them will never be healthy enough to be released back into the wild. But fortunately for us, it allows us to have great close up looks at birds we might not otherwise get to see.

Barbara’s note reminded me that there are many nature and raptor centers throughout the county that we all should take the time to visit. Since you seem to have an interest in hawks, Bonnie, you may want to look for a center in your area. If you find one, hop in your car and take a drive over. Just keep an eye open for the Pope. I hear he might be looking for a ride.