Friday, July 10, 2009

Hawks on the Wing . 2 | Bird News

Hawks themselves are vigilant defenders of their own nests. In recent years, a couple has nested high up on steel beams supporting the canopy over the infield seats at Fenway Park. Sometimes they'd do flyovers of the field during games, perhaps for a birds-eye view of the action, and get worked into the play-by-play. "He's turning right. Maybe he's a Republican. He's heading left. Could be a Democrat. Now he's flying straight off. Probably an Independent."

The Red Sox began removing the hawk's nest each year before opening day in April. But the park is open for tours and events year around. Last spring, one of the hawks swooped down on a girl in a school tour and raked his razor-sharp talons across her scalp. She was taken to the hospital, the nest destroyed and the hawks driven off.

Hawks are cool customers, quietly confident in their superior weaponry and fighting skills. I've often been surprised by a Red-tail perched on a fence post or a tree limb only a few feet away. Their talons curl well around a standard 4-inch-wide fencepost. They will often pose quite patiently for pictures, heads swiveling back and forth, the better to keep an eye on you or maybe to present the photographer with a choice of imposing profiles.

Red-tailed hawks have a very unearthly, chilling cry - uttered only when on the wing - that must freeze many animals in their tracks. It always gets my attention and I stand quite still to listen to the strange sound.

Peterson's (Field Guide to the Birds) describes it like this ... "An asthmatic squeal, keee-r-r (slurring downward)." Well, he's the bird boss, but maybe it's better to recall the sound of a hawk or an eagle screeching in a movie soundtrack, maybe mixed in with other spooky sounds of the wild. That was a Red-tail. And he's still crying out for his residuals.

The hawk at the left just above is one of the Red-tailed residents of Boston's Fenway Victory Gardens. Whether this is a male or female, I can't tell. The sexes look alike, although females are 25% larger and heavier. Both are very large birds with broad, wide wingspans of 43" - 57", 19" - 25" stem to stern and weighing between 1.5 - 4.4 lbs.

The red in the wide rounded tail of the Red-tailed hawk is all on the upperside of Buteo jamaicensis. The rufous, rusty red feathers are usually seen in flashes when the hawk is swooping low to the ground, either coming in for or coming from a kill, or banking in flight. Underneath the tail is banded with brown stripes. Juveniles have dark gray tails that may lack banding. The breast is snowy white with a broad band of brown streaks across the belly. The topsides and head are brown and the beak is conspicuously curved. If they have you in their sights, their gaze is powerful and penetrating.

The Red-tail make their homes and hunt in a wide range of habitats and at many altitudes. They are found in the urban wilds, on farmlands, mountains and deserts, grassland and prarie groves, plains, salt marshes, tropical rain forests and in coniferous, deciduous and mixed woodlands. Basically, everywhere but deep forests, since they need open spaces to spot their prey.