Wishful thinking could be an enemy of good birding. Still, it’s amazing how often a “top-of-mind” bird becomes real. That’s why I pulled over Tuesday morning on the way into Grand Forks. The hawk that rose out of the ditch along County Road 33 seemed unusual, and I wanted to investigate.
Don’t worry, fellow travelers. I checked to be sure none of you were on the road, and I made sure my vehicle was out of the way in case any of you might be hightailing toward town.
But the open space between Gilby and Manvel, N.D., was empty, except for me and a pale hawk.
Hawks are frequent along the Manvel road, which crosses an extensive area of grasslands. Suezette and I make a practice of pointing out hawks on utility poles along the road. The final count often reaches double figures.
Most of these are red-tails. The red-tailed hawk is by far the most abundant hawk in rural areas of the county – but not the only one. Our drives also produce northern harriers, Swainson’s hawks and now and then a bald eagle. In late autumn, these grasslands are a mecca for rough-legged hawks, which are visitors from the Arctic. Ferruginous hawks, a western species, sometimes show up here. One memorable winter morning, I saw a gyrfalcon – a species so rare in our area that I wondered about wishful thinking.
Only two of these species, harrier and red-tailed hawk, are routine along this road and likely to be seen on every trip, except in winter, when both migrate. These trips are many, because CR 33 is the direct route from our place west of Gilby to Interstate 29, which takes us into Grand Forks.
So, this pale hawk attracted my attention.
What’s more, it made me wonder whether “Krider’s hawk” is a real thing – or ornithological wishful thinking.
Birding literature is replete with references to Krider’s hawk. The description stresses that the birds are noticeably paler than the common red-tailed hawk, especially on the breast and over the top of the back. The tail is often light, with pink rather than red highlights.
These birds occur most often in the north central states and southern Canada, a presumptive range that includes North Dakota. Yet in six decades of serious bird noticing, I’ve seen only a handful of these pale hawks.
Two prominent birdmen considered Krider’s to be real, recurring and identifiable, and for many years their opinions prevailed.
Elliot Coues, the great splitter of species, listed Krider’s among his “Birds of the Northwest.” Coues had Great Plains experience. An Army doctor, he’d been stationed at Fort Randall, S.D., and he was a member of the party that surveyed the international boundary in 1874.
Arthur Cleveland Bent described the bird as “a well-marked pale race of the red-tailed hawk occupying the plains and prairie regions of the Middle West.” In “Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey,” this great bird man conceded that Krider’s hawk was rare. “The only nest I ever examined was found on June 1, 1901, near Stump Lake, N.D.,” he wrote. Nevertheless, Bent was stubborn in his defense of the bird’s status. “The sequence of molts is the same as in other red tails, but the racial characteristics are always evident.”
Today’s experts differ markedly from this earlier insistence on the distinctness of Krider’s hawk. Here’s the account from the current standard reference, The American Ornithologists Unions’ “Birds of North America”:
“Probably not a valid subspecies; unclear if breeding range exclusive of other races exists. When compared with adjacent races, ‘kriderii’ exhibits only a dilution or suppression of color, varying greatly among individuals. Distribution and taxonomic status require thorough examination. Probably intergrades with all adjacent races.”
Not a “countable species,” in other words, and probably not even a subspecies. Krider’s is only a pale hawk.
But an extraordinarily beautiful specimen nevertheless.
Bent’s description is almost lyrical. “The adult is much like the eastern red-tailed hawk, but lighter colored; there is much white on the upper parts, the tail is pale rufous and the under parts are nearly pure white, with very few markings and with only a pale buffy tinge in the thighs. Krider’s hawk is easily recognizable in all plumages by extreme lightness.”
That is the characteristic that attracted my attention, and made me stop – but not to add to my life list. That would be giving in to wishful thinking.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.