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Illustration by Mike Jacobs.

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Most local hawks are redtails

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outdoors Grand Forks, 58203
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

Just about every hawk perched on a high line pole this time of year is a red-tailed hawk

Here is another episode in the war between men and women.

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A man — let’s call him Joe — comes home and tells his wife — let’s call her Jane — “I think I saw a red-tailed hawk today.”

“You old fool,” Jane says to him. “You’ve been out in the sun too long.”

“Hah!” says Joe. “I know a hawk when I see one, and this one had a red tail.”

There was a bit of silence.

“It must have been a red-tailed hawk.”

“You’ve been out in the sun too long,” Jane said again.

Joe was annoyed.

“Call that bird nerd at the Herald,” Joe says. “He’ll tell you I could have seen a red-tailed hawk.”

And so she does.

“Joe says he saw a red-tailed hawk,” Jane tells the bird nerd. “I say he’s been out in the sun too long.”

The bird nerd at the Herald knows where this is going.

Then Jane demands, “Whose side are you on?”

The bird nerd takes a sip of coffee. Then the bird nerd takes a deep breath. Then he takes another sip of coffee.

“OK,” the bird nerd says. “We’ve got a problem here.”

“Sure,” says Jane. “Joe’s been out in the sun too long.”

“No,” says the bird nerd. “The problem here is that you haven’t been out in the sun enough.”

“Fiddlesticks,” says Jane.

“Now! Now! Now!” the bird nerd pleads. “The fact is that anyone who goes outside around here, and keeps alert, should see a red-tailed hawk.”

 “Actually, the red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk around here.”

“Oh. I didn’t know,” says Jane.

“But neither did Joe.”

And then she hung up the phone.

Fiddlesticks or not, the red-tailed hawk is the most common hawk around here.

 Anybody who spends any time outside is likely to see one.

Anyone who hasn’t encountered a red-tailed hawk can find one easily enough.

One has only to look in the right places.

And these are numerous around here.

For the red-tailed hawk, Robert Stewart wrote in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” is a “wide-ranging edge species.”

It happens that edge is characteristic habitat here.

Let Stewart explain. The red-tailed hawk, he writes, “is characteristic of habitat complexes that include tracts of mature woodland that are intermingled with or adjoin extensive expanses of native prairie or cropland.”

No better description could be written of the Red River Valley, which has a well-established floodplain forest and extensive open fields bordered by shelterbelts that include mature elm and cottonwood trees.

Here we have two critical elements of red-tailed hawk habitat: open space with observation platforms.

These don’t exist only in rural areas. Red-tailed hawks are regular along the Red River Greenway, and they may nest there. Grand Forks would hardly be the largest city with nesting redtails. Famously, a pair nested near Central Park in New York City.

Like the Red River Greenway, Central Park is an edge habitat.

Although it is the most likely hawk to be seen here, the red-tailed hawk can be confused with other birds. Most other urban hawks — Cooper’s hawks and American kestrels, for example — can be excluded on the basis of size. The red-tailed hawk is larger. It is smaller than the most frequently encountered soaring bird on the Greenway, however. This is the American bald eagle — an unmistakable bird.

In Grand Forks, this pretty much covers the possibilities. In the countryside, the challenge is a bit greater.

So it’s useful to know the field marks of the red-tailed hawk. There are three. First, the red tail. It is indeed red, though it sometimes appears almost transparent. Of course, this is most evident in birds in flight. The second is a band of dark feathers across the breast. These are often visible in perching birds, and no other local hawk has these. The third is the dark area at the bend, or elbow, of the wings, again, only visible in birds in flight.

Finding a red-tailed hawk shouldn’t be difficult Somewhere around 90 percent of hawks perched on high line poles at this time of year are red-tailed hawks.

Yes, they are the most common hawks around here.

Sorry, Jane!

Jacobs is a retired publisher of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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