January 5, 2011

The red-tailed hawk: John Wayne, Central Park, and plastic bags

This time of year it is common to see hawks perched along the highway in bare trees. These barrel-chested lumps, easily confused for a plastic bag, are most always red-tailed hawks. Hunkered down on a bare branch along highways, in city parks, and open fields they appear to be waiting for something to happen or avoiding something that already did. They sit motionless, feathers ruffled to create a thicker baffle of warmth, eyeing the grass below for a mouse, snake, or squirrel to make that fateful dash.

Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park (Vintage Departures)The red-tailed hawk is the most abundant raptor in all of New England, as well as the entire country. When perched on a branch they sit upright, tail hanging below the limb (unlike the horizontal perching crow and show a dark band of feathers against an off-white chest. The “red” tail is only visible from behind or when back lit by sunlight and immature birds have a barred, brown and black tail. In flight the red-tailed hawk glides on rounded outstretched wings, with the tips of its primary feathers or "fingers" curved slightly up. These impressive birds of prey have a two foot wingspan and eyesight that can spot a mouse several hundred yards away, and a recent, living bird found in New York was 27 years old. “Red-tails” are famous for both their affinity for nesting in high end urban real estate and their iconic “screeee” call that has been dubbed over soaring eagles, misty-eyed John Wayne, and panoramic shots of a hundred Westerns. 

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