Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Aerial Backyard Denizens: the suburban Red-tail

Been months since I posted in my Suburban/Urban Wildlife "series" (see here, here, and here) .....and now that we don't live in North Carolina, we don't live in suburbia.  Although that is to my un-ending joy (that we no longer live in suburbia), it makes it difficult to get new Urban Wildlife tales to tell.

However, I have a few stories that I've saved ........from back during the time when we lived in a suburban environment.....that I can share with you all.

This one is from late July and it involves a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

I would almost go so far as to call red-tailed hawks commonplace these days.  I would be willing to guess that 80% of the times I'm in the car for more than 20 minutes driving through an agricultural landscape, I see red-tails.  Just two weeks ago, I was driving somewhere and actually saw one sitting on a street sign at an intersection, not 10 feet off of the ground.  If I had a camera with me, I would have pulled over to try and get a picture. 

I'm not sure exactly what was going through the mind of the individual pictured below.  He was perched in a tree roughly 20 ft off of the ground.....which was the lowest I had ever encountered one perching, until I saw the individual on the street sign not long ago!

I had been having a conversation with a colleague in the parking lot near our offices at the University.  We had been talking for 10 minutes, at least, when I happened to look up at the trees to see this Red-tail staring back at me.  Shocked, I alerted my colleague to the bird and the two of us stared in amazement.

As you can see, I was able to get pretty close.  The hawk seemed more annoyed with us than scared of us.  There was a community garden near our building, which I imagine was great for hunting rodents.

The Red-Tailed Hawk has one of the largest distrubtions of any raptor in the New World (found from Alaska and the Yukon to Central America).  It's a species that can apparently handle anthropogenic disturbance.  It enjoys woodland edges and may have benefited from clearing of woodlands to create suburban and agricultural landscapes (probably also the reason why they are so frequently seen along roads).  It can handle the city life as well, and has even been found to breed in very urban environments such as New York City and Philadelphia

But I don't think red-tails were always so common.

Back when I was a kid....hawks and eagles always seemed pretty rare...at least I think they were rare.  I can vividly remember the excitement associated with actually seeing one.  For example, I recall a handful of occassions from my youth when dad saw a hawk (probably a red-tail) soaring overhead as we were driving in the car.  I remember that the rest of us family passengers were just happy to get a brief glimpse of it before it soared out of view. 
I don't know if red-tailed hawk populations have made a massive comeback in the upper Midwest, or if I'm just better at looking for them now?  Maybe they were never as rare as I remember them being. 

Interestingly, a fella named Gordon Orians published a paper in volume 17 of the Passenger Pigeon (the publication of the Wisconsin Society of Ornithologits) that gives an intriguing historical perspective on the attitudes of people toward this species.  Orians recounted the results of a questionnaire survey that was given to rural residents in the state of Wisconsin in 1955.  The results indicated that not one of the individuals who took the survey "were able to or cared to distinguish one species of hawk from another.  All were unanimous in saying that hawks are shot whenever possible in their area.  The attitude that the only good hawk is a dead hawk still prevails". 

These previous attitudes towards birds of prey give some indication as to why even the red-tail (a common species that benefits from the increased amount of habitat created by agriculture), could be in a precarious situation based on the prevailing mind-set of people.  I would also be willing to bet that this anti-hawk sentiment is in stark contrast to the general attitude towards hawks today.  Although I suppose folks that keep poultry aren't fond of red-tails swooping down on the chicken coop....most people are probably ok with hawks.


  1. That's amazing how much attitudes towards hawks have changed. I wonder if they will change again and which way. In the meantime, most people I know enjoy watching them soar.

  2. Hi Cindy,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    Because I grew up in an era where Hawks were respected (and usually protected by law), the idea of shooting a hawk on-sight seems incredibly foreign. I guess we have to remember how easily things can swing back, if we let them.

    BTW...I've wanted to sign up as a "follower" on your blog...but don't see the option anywhere. Am I missing something?


  3. Hey Trailblazer, great shots and what a cool opportunity to get so close to one of these amazing raptors! Like you, as kids we never saw eagles at all, and very rarely hawks. Now, we have both all over the place year round! I never even saw my first eagle until my late teens, and even then, they were few and far between. Red tails are a dime a dozen now. I see one about every mile on the interstate. I'm glad they have rebounded like they have. Great post!


  4. I'm wondering why people were previously so anti-hawk? It seems as if they help control rodent population, which is a good thing. The only feature that I haven't liked is when they poach songbirds from my feeder area. But, all in all, they're majestic and amazing.

    My husband and I have both been seeing a bald eagle soaring over our area in the past month. Very cool!

    1. My grandparents hated hawks...they killed their free ranging chickens. Grandma wasn't too keen on losing Sunday's dinner to a hawk.

  5. Hey Bill and KB!

    KB, its interesting....I can only assume that if they were farmers and kept chickens...ducks....even rabbits (or similar small game) there was a small risk from hawks. Also, there were pervasive myths that hawks could take much bigger animals than was actually possible....which made folks nervous about them.

    Bill: like you said, they are pretty common nowadays! In fact, saw one about five hours ago soaring over our house! Saw roughly four-five of them during a several hour drive I made today.