What Bird is That?
A darker belly band across the lighter breast is a distinctive mark of a red-tailed hawk. Photo by © Merry McGilvray
After many years of hiking in state parks and looking down at the wonderful array of wildflowers, I decided to start looking up as well. Seeing beautiful birds, I wondered, what bird is that? In an attempt to learn enough to answer that question, I attended park programs, talked to birders, invested in good binoculars and acquired a series of bird guide books. I soon became enraptured by one group of birds—the raptors.
Seeing raptors soar in a brilliant blue Colorado sky is almost reward enough in itself. But I wanted to know more about them. Raptors are birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures, and owls, among others. Many are large birds, but some are no bigger than robins. Regardless of size, all raptors are well-equipped predators, with strong feet and sharp toes, or talons; powerful, hooked beaks; and keen vision.
Beautiful rusty red tail feathers of the red-tailed hawk. Photo by © Linda Pohle
Statistically, the red-tailed hawk is the most common raptor in Colorado. If you see 10 raptors, eight likely will be red-tails. So let’s focus here on red-tails. It’s true that red-tailed hawks can be easy to identify when the sun illuminates their rusty red tail feathers. But not all red-tails have red tails. So what else can help you identify this raptor? Here are a few things to look for.
Warning: The following are general statements only. Check guide books and, if you can, go out with birders who know their hawks!
Your location gives you the first clue to identification. If you are in a thick forest, you’re not likely to see red-tails, which, with their wide, long wings, heavy bodies and short tails, are built for soaring and hunting over open spaces. Other things to look for:
- How it flies:
Red-tails hold their wings in a shallow “V” as they soar with their wingtips separated like fingers and tilted up. Wingbeats are deep and slow in a “flap, flap, glide” sequence. If you see a lot of flapping, it might be a falcon, but it’s probably not a red-tail.
- The color of the leading edge of its wings:
Most red-tails have dark leading edges, almost like shoulder epaulets on a military uniform. No other raptor does.
- Markings on its breast:
Many red-tails have a lighter breast with dark markings across it, creating the look of a “belly band.” This is a key identifying feature of a red-tail.
Red-tails perch on trees, utility poles, fence posts — almost anything that provides a high, broad view of a meadow, open field, or other likely source of prey. When looking at a perched bird from the front, look for the belly band. If the bird has its back to you, look for light-colored feathers forming a “V” on its generally dark back.
Red-tails and all raptors have strong feet and sharp talons. Photo by © Linda Pohle
White feathers on a red-tail’s dark back often form a V. Photo by © Linda Pohle
Courting and nesting
Red-tails stay with their mates for the long-term. In February to March, courtship begins with dazzling aerial displays, called sky dancing. The pair will fly near one another and let their sturdy yellow legs swing beneath them like pendulums. They may lock talons and tumble toward the ground in swooping arcs. (Eagles do this as well.) The red-tail pairs then search for likely nest sites, sometimes returning to the same nest for years. Nesting, laying eggs, and rearing young take about four months, from April into July. The female tends to the nest and the male brings food for her and, eventually, their chicks. Red-tails may use their wings to “kite,” or hold a position in the air, so they can watch potential prey on the ground.
Red-tails build large nests of twigs, branches and leaves, usually in tall trees. If you’re out on a trail or driving a park road before trees fully leaf out, you may spot a nest. If so, be a responsible hawk watcher. Keep your distance—use binoculars—and stay at least 1,800 feet away, about a third of a mile. Come too close and you may frighten the nesting mother off the nest, with fatal consequences for the young. Maintain a low profile and stay quiet while observing the nest. If you notice the red-tail showing signs of distress, such as frantic calling or nervous movements, move on. In a park, let rangers know about the nest location.
Many excellent raptor guide books are available at the library or your local bookstore. A good starter guide is “Birds of Prey of the West” by Stan Tekiela. It’s small and fits easily in a daypack or glovebox.
For me, a day without seeing a red-tail or other raptor is like a day without sunshine. You might feel that way, too, once you learn more about our magnificent raptors.
Written by Linda Pohle. Pohle is a freelance writer and a volunteer at Castlewood Canyon State Park.