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January 17
1994, 4:31 a.m. - Magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake rocks Santa Clarita Valley [video]

Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Oct 3, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugIt is a beautiful day and you are on the trail. You see the shadow of a bird high overhead. You can tell it is a bird of prey, flying in large circles and looking for a meal. Now comes the big question: Red-tailed or red-shouldered hawk? Suddenly, the sun hits the fanning tail: It is rusty red and shining. No problem. Identification accomplished, you congratulate yourself for always being able to recognize a red-tailed hawk.

A few days later, you are on the trail with a birder friend. Same scene, and a hawk is flying overhead when your friend exclaims with assurance, “Red-tailed hawk.” You look, but this bird does not look anything like the one from the other day. Your friend sees the confusion in your face and explains (gently, I hope), “The  juvenile red-tailed hawk has completely different plumage, brown and gray with a pale rectangle on the primary (flight) feathers. They are juveniles for the first two years of their lives.

“To confuse you even more,” your friend continues, “there is a light, intermediate and dark morph where the birds have a pale breast, brown head and streaked belly band, and to be safe, the identification is done by studying the shape of the bird – the wings and tail pattern.

hawk100213“Further complicating things, if you see a red-tailed hawk – which is the most common and widespread hawk – in another state, the plumage coloration will probably be different. In winter (October to March), even in the West, you can see birds of various morphs, and some dark morph birds also breed locally.”

Too much information. Discouraged, you come home and tackle Google to learn all there is to know about red-tailed hawks and listen to the bird calls to soothe away your frustration.

I do not pretend to tell you all there is to know about this bird, but I do want to review a few facts to give you a chance to appreciate and enjoy this beautiful creature.

Even if you have not paid attention to it, you have heard its calls. It is a loud, harsh, drawn-out scream. It also has shorter, clipped notes.

In my neighborhood, those calls are often mixed with the ravens’ calls.  Ravens will attack the hawk, protecting their nest and chasing the hawk away.

The red-tailed hawk vocalizes often, even in flight, but is the loudest – and justly so – when it is reacting to another hawk intruding on its territory. The scream of the red-tailed hawk is the one chosen by the movie industry to represent all hawks; it is the generic raptor sound effect of choice, even if the bird in the scene is not a red-tailed hawk.

When you look at the bird, the most impressive features you see are its fierce eyes and sharp beak. The eyes are so big, they cannot move in the sockets, and the bird needs to turn its head to see in different directions. That result is a fixed, intense glare. Immature birds have yellow irises that slowly get darker to a reddish brown in about four years.

hawk100213bMeat hook for a beak? That makes sense; it is a bird of prey. Their diet is 85 percent small rodents. Consequently, this is a bird with an important role in the environment to control our population of rats and mice. They also eat birds, reptiles and even large insects.

They have two ways to hunt: (1) They look for prey from an elevated perch like a telephone pole, and they swoop down fast to catch the prey with their extended talons. They have very good vision and can see a mouse from 100 feet away. And (2), they fly in large circles, checking the territory and seeing the progress of prey until they can dive – at speeds in excess of 100 mph – to grab the prey, or they can catch a bird in flight.

To conserve energy, they do not flap their wings, instead using wind currents to float around. They move at about 20 mph to 40 mph.

Their feathers are considered sacred to many native Americans. They are used in religious ceremonies and are found in many regalia outfits. For the rest of the population, those feathers are regulated by the eagle feather law, which governs the possession of feathers and parts of migratory birds.

Red-tailed hawks are birds of choice for falconry because they are easy to train to hunt for their owner. However, only hawks which have left the nest, are on their own and are less than a year old, can be trapped to be trained. That way, the breeding population is not affected.

The sport is tightly regulated, and we are proud to have Dave Stives at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. Dave is an expert falconer and has trained a few birds – always with great care and understanding.

The red-tailed hawk mates for life and often nests in the same area, adding twigs to a nest that becomes larger each year.

The courtship can last 10 minutes. Male and female fly together, and the male makes some acrobatic moves while they screech at each other. Sometimes they grasp each other’s talons in the air.

Red Tailed hawkFemales lay one to three eggs. The mother will mostly tend to them, but the father will fill in from time to time while the mother goes hunting. After 28 to 35 days, the eggs will hatch and the nestlings are atricial, meaning the parents must do everything for them.

The female will brood the babies and the male will do the hunting. The young ones are called eyasses, and after 42 to 46 days, they will leave the nest for short flights. Finally, seven weeks later, after they leave the nest, they can start to catch their own prey. It is only when they are four months old that they are independent from the parents, but they will not reach sexual maturity until age 3.

Their life expectancy is about 21 years. The oldest red-tailed hawk in captivity was 29 years old.

These beautiful birds are North America’s most common hawk and can be found in a wide range of habitats except the high arctic. Most predators attack the eggs or nestlings, but not the fully mature birds, and their population remains constant.

Red-tailed hawks are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and that was a very positive move. The screech of the red-tailed hawk is one of the wild sounds so typical and loved in California.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.


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