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Fall brings a concentration of red-tails

This is the season of the red-tailed hawk. The red-tail is by far the most common of our open-country summer hawks, and its numbers swell in the fall as migrating birds join the locals, feasting on a bounty of field mice and other ground dwellers...

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs portrait for Always in Season column

This is the season of the red-tailed hawk.

The red-tail is by far the most common of our open-country summer hawks, and its numbers swell in the fall as migrating birds join the locals, feasting on a bounty of field mice and other ground dwellers, including frogs, snakes, gophers and small birds.

Each morning, six to a dozen red-tailed hawks perch on highline poles along County Road 33, our daily commute to Grand Forks. That's an average of a little better than a hawk a mile.

It may be that 33 is a favored road for red-tails, since it has a fairly wide variety of habitat, ranging from vast open fields to great patches of grassland, some wetlands and quite a bit of brush.

Throw in a lot of shelterbelts and an occasional isolated tree and you have exactly the habitat that red-tails prefer, a kind of hemmed-in open territory.

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In fact, the red-tail is the classic "edge species," specializing in hunting from open perches, from which it drops onto its prey.

Unlike falcons and some other hawks, it generally doesn't pursue lunch, but rather picks it up where it can.

Of course, the red-tail is aided by the keen eyesight that characterizes all of the hawks. It may be that the spacing of hawks along a highway represents the effective distance that each bird can observe from a perch.

The birds along my route of travel may be related. Red-tailed hawks are thought to be largely monogamous and maintain long-term pair bonds. The young remain dependent on adults well past fledging.

A pair of red-tails has nested within a mile of our place west of Gilby, N.D., every year that we've lived here.

Red-tails are large hawks, with wing spans of 4 feet or a little bit more, and length, bill to tail, of 20 inches or so.

Their wings are wide, well suited to soaring. Their bodies are heavy and their tails are often held fanlike.

These characteristics give the red-tailed hawk a boxy appearance, as if it filled out a rectangle. This is a good clue to identifying these hawks in flight.

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In flight, red-tailed hawks are dark on the leading edge of the wing.

In general, red-tails are fairly light on the bottom side, usually with a band across the belly. But these are not conclusive field marks because red-tails vary widely. Some can be quite dark, others almost white.

The tail is a good mark, however. Virtually all red-tailed hawks have a chestnut-colored tail that generally shows up pretty well -- and makes identification easy.

Red-tailed hawks could be confused with other soaring hawks of open country, Swainson's hawk and ferruginous hawk. Both are more common farther west. Ferruginous hawks are larger and much lighter overall than red-tails. Swainson's hawks have narrower, and apparently longer wings (pushing them out of the heavy rectangle) and are dark on the trailing edge of the wing.

Red-tailed hawks are widespread in North America, essentially inhabiting the entire continent except the treeless far north.

Although they are predominately birds of open country, a pair became famous when it nested in New York's Central Park.

In Grand Forks, I've seen red-tailed hawks at rest in Riverside Park and in flight along the Red River Greeenway.

But red-tails are not the common urban hawk here. That label must go to Cooper's hawk, a member of a different tribe of hawks.

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Red-tailed hawks are primarily summer and autumn birds with us. They are common breeders, and in migration, they are abundant. On days favorable for migration, it's possible to see several hundred red-tailed hawks a day passing over Grand Forks.

Often, the birds move as individuals or in small groups, but sometimes they form large flocks, called kettles, which move together taking advantage of rising thermals and favorable winds.

Such conditions often occur in late September and early October, and the red-tails use them to move south.

Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

Related Topics: ALWAYS IN SEASONHUNTINGMIKE JACOBS
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