Red Tail Hawks and my favourite, Big Red

As a child growing up in Oklahoma, I would sit with my dad on the back porch right before dusk. The two of us would feed the ‘Red’ Birds (Cardinals) and the Blue Jays every evening. There were several metal tins sitting on the shelves in the garage full of peanuts, broken pecans, and corn. The broken pecans came from a huge tree across our back lane. Every year my dad would harvest the pecans. Mrs Johnson owned the tree. They had a long standing arrangement. My dad would pick the pecans and she would get half and he would have the other half for picking them. Some of the pecans went to the birds while the large whole pieces were for making fudge and pralines. I don’t know where the corn originally came from. My dad would dry it in the rafters of the garage. When the kernels were absolutely hard, they would be broken off and stored in a tin. Someone that we knew grew fields of peanuts. When they were harvested, my dad would come home with three or four large burlap bags full of them in their shells. The whole garage smelled like peanuts. They too made their way into the metal containers so that we did not attract mice. In the evenings several handfuls would be taken out. If we sat real quiet the red birds would come and take the nuts and corn from my dad’s hand. The Blue Jays were not so trusting.

What I did not see -nor did I ever learn about them – were the hawks that lived in the rolling hills around Central Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma Landscape” by Kool Cats Photography over 14 Million Views is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Did you know that Red-tail Hawks have 20/2 vision? What does that actually mean? Hawks see something 20 feet away as if it were 2 feet away. That is a whole lot different than humans who aspire to 20/20 vision! No wonder people use the term ‘hawk eye’ for someone who can see something far away clearly. Lots of raptors perch on the blades of the old windmills. It gives them a great vantage point over the landscape to see their prey.

“Oklahoma Landscape” by Kool Cats Photography over 14 Million Views is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Oklahoma is described as a ‘Red Tail Hawk Paradise’ by Jim Lish in his book, Winter’s Hawk. Red-tails on the Southern Plains. What precisely does Lish mean? Lish wanted to know the density of Red-tail haws and so he counted them. He understood that if you saw a single hawk in a mile you were in ‘Hawk Paradise’. In Oklahoma, the figures ranged from 400 to 1118 per 621 miles. The highest number was in Craig County in 2013. In fact, Oklahoma has some of the highest densities of Red-tail hawks in the winter than anywhere.

The Red Tail Hawks migrate to Oklahoma in early October just as the leaves are beginning to fall from the trees. They depart to their breeding territories in March. This means that half their life is spent in Oklahoma. Important to the hawks are the grasslands and the rodent populations of the Southern Great Plains. Indeed, one of the biggest threats to their populations in Oklahoma is the fragmentation of the vast grasslands caused by a warming climate and sequential years of drought, energy exploration, shifts in the way farms are run, and rapid urbanization. Another issue may well be a declining rodent population.

“Red-tailed Hawk” by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Red-tail hawks perch in trees to sleep. They are only in the nests during breeding season. The hawk below is high and has a good vantage point to hunt for rodents.

“Red Tailed Hawk” by Larry Smith2010 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

There is a point to this rather long winded story – albeit I hope that you also learned something in my rambling. When I graduated from high school, I was the only one that was not getting married in a few weeks and I was the only female heading off to university. As it happens, the University of Oklahoma in Norman is one of the best places to study raptors, the university press is one of the leading publishers on hawks, and, of course, there is the late George Sutton, one of American’s leading ornithologists right there where I was studying Fine Arts. Not only was he known for his avian research but also for his avian drawings. Oh, if I knew then what I know now! So my point is – we never know what our children’s interests really are unless we introduce them to a broad world of possibilities. Today, the language is even different. Conservation Ecologist. Cultural Ecologist. Not even on the horizon when I was a student. Oh, what a great sounding path in life now!

Which brings me to my most favourite Red-tail Hawk in the world – Big Red. She is eighteen years old. She hatched somewhere new Brooktondale, New York in 2003 and she was banded there on 20 October 2003. She is the grand dame of the Cornell University Campus where her nest is on the Fernow Light Tower. Her current mate is Arthur and the two of them are caring for three eyases, the Ks. Big Red and Arthur do not migrate. For some reason they have gotten used to the ‘normal’ climate of upstate New York at Ithaca and they spend their winters there too. You will never finding them hanging around the tall grasses of Oklahoma.

The weather has been nothing short of ‘wet’ in Ithaca. I don’t even know how Big Red could hold her wing out like that for any period of time. She has to be exhausted and yes, she is a mother to the core. She will do anything to protect her chicks.

Those babies are all piled up but they are too big to get underneath Big Red like they did ten days ago.

Big Red and the Ks caught a break today. That is when this beautiful scene happened – it is K2 hugging her mama.

I am told that we are three to three and a half weeks away from fledge watch. Red tail hawks typically fledge 40-48 days after hatch. Yesterday, 29 May, marks the day that all three Ks stood up and walked a bit. K1 has even flapped its wings a few times. They will build up their strength and start growing those feathers. I know that hawks gain a lot of weight and grow crazy fast but it is still hard to imagine these flying off the ledge so soon.

When the skies cleared, Arthur took the opportunity to bring his family a squirrel – a real treat this breeding season. Seriously, I am worried about the rodent population this season. I wonder what is happening.

Arthur is a keen hunter. Last year, due to the pandemic, the Cornell University campus in Ithaca was fairly deserted. This nest is monitored 24/7. Prey drops are counted and in 2020 Arthur brought in 72% more prey than he had delivered to the nest in 2019. That consisted of chipmunks, squirrels, and pigeons and a few other species. The presence of humans back on the campus appears to have impacted the rodent population and the amount of prey delivery. This is just my observation and I hope to clarify this with a look at the prey delivery chart this week.

Arthur delivered this squirrel in time for Big Red to fill the Ks up because both her and Arthur knew that heavy rains were returning. Indeed, some said it was quite the system moving through and that it had already destroyed some Osprey nests. It certainly is unseasonably cool. Tonight it is only 43 degrees F – freezing is 32! Ferris Akel commented yesterday on his birding tour that he had to change his HVAC system back to heating. After tonight there is only an 8% chance of rain but the winds will be picking up tomorrow. My gosh it is cold there.

Big Red loves being a mama. Here she is with her beautiful Ks trying to dry out today. That is the baby, K3, under Big Red. Did you know that, beginning in the medieval era, falconers believed that the third egg was always a male. Today, a male hawk is called a ‘tercel’. It comes from the word ‘third’. We also know that male hawks are smaller than the females. It’s that Reverse Sex-Size diamorphism again. We’ll have to have a good look at K3 around fledge time.

And here is adorable K2 posing for us. And here is your word for the day: cere. See the light yellow area above the nostrils and that sharp black beak? That is the cere. Those two black dots on each side of K2’s head, below the eyes, are actually its ears. These will be covered with feathers by the time K2 fledges. And what about their eye colour? That is very interesting. The eye colour of a juvenile is normally a range of blue-grey. Adult Red-tail Hawks have brown eyes and that brown gets darker with age. Last year, however, J3 had brown eyes! They were gorgeous and very distinctive. K2 has beautiful baby blues.

It rained during the night on Big Red and the Ks – again. But by 9:30 am they were dried out. Notice the pine in the nest? It is a natural insect repellent! It helps keeps the bugs down and we don’t want any flies laying their larvae in those precious ears.

Bird World is relatively quiet. The only breaking news I have is that Kaknu has now fledged (30 May) and was flying around with his brother, Fauci, near the Campanile Tower on the UC Berkeley Campus. When I last checked Wek-Wek was still on the runway debating whether to take off. It has to be frightening – but they are birds, the fastest flying birds in the world!

Thank you so much for joining me. Take care of yourself. Have a fabulous Monday.

Thank you to the Cornell Bird Lab for their Red-Tail Hawk streaming cam. That is where I obtained my screen shots.

Feature Image Credit: “Red-tailed Hawk #1 11-21-17” by Larry Smith2010 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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