March 08, 2022


March 08, 2022

One of my favorite birds is the red-tailed hawk.  I have been enamored by raptors since my early college days and even (briefly) dreamed of being a raptor veterinarian in Alaska, until I was stymied by the memorization required by Chemistry I, II, and III.  While the majestic eagles soaring on the thermals are often the main attraction, the hawks were more common in the prairie state where I grew up.  Since becoming an Arkansas birder I have struggled to identify the hawks I see perched on tree limbs or power lines along the road.  I would take a picture and then compare it to the images in my guides.  What I finally realized is these “different birds” are all variants of the same species, my beloved red tail.

When I looked online, I found the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a bird of prey that breeds throughout most of North America, from the interior of Alaska and northern Canada to as far south as Panama and the West Indies.  It is one of the most common members within the Buteo genus in North America or worldwide.  The red-tailed hawk is one of the largest members of the Buteo, typically weighing from 1.5 to 3.5 pounds (690 to 1,600 g), measuring 18-26 inches (45–65 cm) in length, and with a wingspan from 3’7” to 4’8” (110–141 cm).  The species displays sexual dimorphism in size, with females averaging about 25% heavier than males.  The bird occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, agricultural fields, and urban areas.  Red tails are legally protected in Canada, Mexico, and the US by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  There are 14 recognized variants that differ in both appearance and range.

When I tried to identify the different hawks I photographed, their colors ranged from brown backs with a dirty white mottled front, to brown with full white breasts, to nearly white with a pinkish tail.  My research indicated that red tails are often strongly polymorphic, with individuals ranging from almost white to nearly all black.  These variants explained my different birds.  The red-tailed hawk is one of three species colloquially known in the US as the “chicken hawk”, though it rarely preys on standard chickens.  The diet of red-tailed hawks is highly variable and reflects their status as opportunistic feeders, but most often they are predators of small mammals such as rodents, and prey that is terrestrial and at least partially diurnal is preferred.  Like many Buteo species, they often hunt from a perch, but they can vary their hunting technique where prey and habitat demand.

THOUGHTS:  While speaking with my mom last week she mentioned the “chicken hawk” that had roosted on the tree outside her window.  This was joined by another smaller bird, and both were the same variants.  This must have been a female (larger) and her mate (smaller).   While I grew up hearing the term “chicken hawk”, I did not realize (until today) they were probably red tails.  When the pandemic began researchers struggled to identify the corona virus.  Once the virus’ genome was mapped, they began to identify later variants.  Like my red tails, none look quite the same on the microscopic level, but they are all covid.  So far, the vaccines have been effective against these variants.  Follow the science.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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