You might know the expression "When you hear hoofbeats - think horses, not zebras". One of the most important steps in becoming a better birder (and a better observer of the wild world in general) is getting to know your local, everyday wildlife better.
By spending time watching your "neighbors", you learn more about bird behavior in general - who eats what (robins will ignore your seed feeder, chickadees eat everything), who's on the ground, in the foliage, on the flowers, clinging to the treetrunks or soaring above, and what the body language means. You learn that goldfinches aren't always gold, bluebirds aren't always blue, and redtails don't always have red tails.
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Watercolor study from last weekend, practice on doing plumage and eyes
When I began volunteering with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, we got excellent training in hawk identification, and the heart of that ID training could be distilled down to: "Why is this not a redtail?" Redtails are so widespread and well-adapted to so many different situations and habitats that they make a perfect "baseline" hawk. Almost anywhere you live (in North America) you're likely to have redtails nearby, so if you get to know them well, then it will be easier to identify the not-a-redtails.
Redtails make themselves at home almost anywhere.
They're at home in urban, suburban, rural and wilderness areas. They want some trees, to perch on and nest in, but not too many; the one place you won't normally find redtails is in dense forest. And though they like to have a few trees, they aren't absolutely essential - they'll hunt from and nest on manmade structures as well. The nation's most famous redtail, Pale Male, lives in Manhattan. Here in San Francisco, my friend watched many redtails over the years from her office off Market Street - they liked hunting the pigeons (and probably rats, too) around Halladie Plaza, where the cable cars turn around. The tree lined streets, city parks, school ballfields and office parks of suburbia offer plenty of the open space hunting that they like (parks offer the additional bonus of rodents attracted to the trash cans and spilled food from human visitors). Rural areas - ag land and especially ranches - is redtail heaven. Plenty of rodents, good sightlines and all of those great phone poles and power towers to perch on... everything you need to keep a redtail happy.
When redtails hang in the breeze, catching updrafts, they scarcely move - if you look closely, you can see a minute twitch of a feather or a slight adjustment of wing position, all that it takes to keep their place in the sky.
They're versatile hunters who ply their trade while soaring high above open fields, floating motionless in the breeze above a hillside, perched on a power pole or fence post, even hunting on foot when circumstances call for it. They take a wide variety of prey - mammal, birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects (a friend even watched a young one eating earthworms as it made its way through its first winter), and of course, they're not above scavenging when they're hungry enough. In the classic "Hawks in Flight" says:
Any furred, feathered or scaled creature that is smaller than a groundhog and turns its back on a meal-minded Red-tailed Hawk might safely be said to be courting a shortcut to the cosmic.
As good as they are, they don't get 100% - this juvenile is searching a fistful of grass for the creature he thought he grabbed. Mousie got away this time.
Living so comfortably among humans has its downsides too. For one thing, humans aren't real keen on having rodents around; redtails would be happy to take care of that problem, but they don't work well inside. So people resort to poisons, and then the poisoned rodents wander around in the open, letting down their guard as they're dying - an easy capture for a hungry hunter. The hawks and owls suffer and die, and along with them go the coyotes and bobcats - even the occasional household pet. I'm sure that most people who work in wildlife care would be thrilled to see rodenticides banned.
As long as the rodents aren't poisoned and it watches its wings around the wires, this adult should live a good many more years.
They also have problems understanding a few things about manmade objects. Their hunting style doesn't put them on a collision course with windows as much as other raptors, thankfully. But the combination of good hunting perches on power poles and lots of rodents working the short grass of roadsides and medians is a dangerous combo for 'tails. They have that single-minded focus when they're diving on prey, and the car or truck in their peripheral vision doesn't really register with them. Those hunting perches also electrocute a large number of raptors - if the bird's wings bridge two wires, they complete a circuit and get fried (especially dangerous under damp or wet conditions).
Still, their numbers tell you that a lot of redtails manage to avoid these dangers, learn how to hunt for themselves and populate the countryside. This gives almost everyone a chance to get to know them well. It's not quite as easy as it sounds, though.
The basic part is easy - redtails are a fairly large hawk, maybe 18-20" tall (including tail), with a wingspan of 4-5 feet. They've got a fairly stocky build and powerful feet. but then you get into the plumage...
Juvenile showing a typical clear white breast. This was later in the year and its eyes were already starting to darken from the juvenile yellow to an adult's dark brown.
For one thing: Not all redtails have red tails. Juvenile birds (and there are a lot of them this time of year), have brown tails. But never fear, all redtails, adult and juvenile have a patagial mark - a dark bar at the leading edge of the wing. Adults and juveniles are dark brown on back, with a speckled V of white feathers across their shoulders when they're perched (the "backpack straps"). Juveniles are generally white in the breast, with a dark belly band. Adults have a greater range of colors, especially here in the west, but are generally clear breasted, with a belly band that might not be quite as distinct as a juvenile or may be missing altogether. The breast may be white, or buff, or tawny - colors are generally darker on western birds.
Note the patagial marks at the leading edge of the wing... even if the hawk doesn't have a beautiful red tail like this one, those marks tell you it's a redtail.
And then there are the dark morphs (makes it much harder to see the patagials, alas) and the subspecies (crazy colored tails on the Harlan's especially) and the albinos and partial albinos (surprisingly large numbers in some areas). The plumage variations of redtails have long fascinated me, and will be the subject of another diary one of these days. No redtails visited me at the banding blind yesterday, but they'll soon be in their second wave of migration, so I expect to have the chance to say hello again soon.
One place that supports a lot of redtails (and prairie falcons and golden eagles and wintering ferruginous hawks and merlins and various owls and mountain bluebirds and mountain plovers and kit foxes and other good stuff) is Panoche Valley. It's under threat for a large scale solar development that does not belong in this great bit of habitat. If you can spare a moment to sign a petition ahead of a crucial hearing this week, it would be greatly appreciated. Those of us who like to visit regularly are trying to keep it safe until you get the chance to see it for yourself.ps - Thanks to juliewolf for hosting last week!