Admiring the Red-Tailed Hawk—Up High and Up Close

By Katie Koerten Gazette Contributing Writer

Look up in the sky on almost any fair day. If you see a large bird gliding in circles and its spread wings form a nearly straight line, you’re probably looking at a red-tailed hawk. If the bird is close enough that you can see pink to light-red tail feathers, it’s definitely a red-tail. In addition to admiring them from afar, I had an opportunity to work very closely with these birds.

Red-tails are raptors, a group that also includes owls, eagles, ospreys, kites, harriers and falcons. Raptors differ from other birds in three ways. The first is their forward-facing eyes. Like humans and other hunting animals, raptors’ eyes are in the front, giving them excellent depth perception, crucial for judging distance. The second feature is strong talons for grasping their prey. Talons are also the primary defense of raptors, as they are incredibly sharp and quick. The third is a sharp, curved beak that serves as a knife for tearing off pieces of meat.

These majestic birds can be found all over North America, from Alaska to Panama and the West Indies. They can hunt in deserts, meadows, urban parks and farms alike; all they need is a high perch to scan an open habitat for prey. You can see them on roadsides, perched on a telephone pole, watching for prey.

They are generalists, with a diet that includes small mammals, reptiles and smaller birds. They acquire their rusty red tails around their third year, making them easily identifiable. Their long, broad wings and fan- shaped tail give their bodies a large surface area, which makes them able to soar with little effort and little need to flap their wings.

Some red-tailed hawks travel south, while others stay in New England for the winter. Those who stay face many challenges to survival, as temperatures drop and food becomes scarce. Last winter, while I was an intern at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science (VINS), I witnessed the challenges of winter for one red- tail in particular.

One afternoon in February, the bird rehabilitation clinic at VINS got a call about a red-tailed hawk someone had found, motionless but alive, in a snow bank. This bird very nearly became one of the casualties of winter. We gave the caller instructions for gently picking it up, using heavy leather gloves, and placing it in a ventilated container for transport. When the hawk arrived we donned our own heavy gloves to give the bird a head-to-talon examination. When we lifted him out of the box, his body was limp, and his feathers were caked with snow and ice. He let us open his beak to look into his mouth for signs of dehydration or parasites, and didn’t resist when we gently stretched out each wing and each leg, palpating for any possible fractures.

He seemed not even to notice as we shone a light into his ears, eyes and nostrils, looking for blood and other signs of trauma. Normally, a wild red-tailed hawk would have struggled to shake free, striking out with its talons, staring us down with its piercing eyes. This hawk, however, was virtually lifeless. He was severely hypothermic and close to death.

We used hot washcloths to melt the ice and towels to dry his feathers. Then we put him in a small enclosure with a heat pad and a towel folded into a “donut” to support him since he was unable to stand, and let him rest overnight. Based on his weight we guessed that he was a male. (For red-tailed hawks and other raptors, males are smaller than females, sometimes only weighing about a third as much.)

The next morning we were delighted to see the hawk looking alert. We gave him a nutrient-rich fluid diet for four days, until he was ready for solid food. The hawk steadily improved, soon becoming our most feisty patient. He ate readily and regained his raptor-quick reflexes: I held my breath every time I had to pick him up and weigh him, knowing that his talons were sharp, and much quicker than my hands. After two weeks we released him back into the wild, confident that he had made a full recovery and glad that he had another chance.

Raptors play a crucial part in many ecosystems, helping keep prey populations in check. If they are doing well, it’s likely their environment is in good shape, providing sufficient prey and adequate habitat conditions to support healthy raptor populations. Exquisitely adapted to survival, they occupy diverse habitats all over the world from woodland to tundra to rainforest. And, of course, they are breathtakingly beautiful. I’m grateful for the chance I was given to know and help these birds in this special way.

Katie Koerten is an environmental educator and coordinator of child and family programs at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. By law, only licensed wildlife rehabilitators can rehabilitate wild birds. If you find an injured hawk or other bird, check www.mass.gov/dfwele/dfw/index.htm or call the Fish and Wildlife District Office in Belchertown at 323-7632 for a listing of local rehabilitators.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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