Behold the “tail “-
So young, yet so sturdy.
His tail not yet rusty,
But still sorta purdy
In the world of hawk watching, Red-tailed Hawks are known by several names. When observing the autumn sky for migrants, there is little time for a counter to use their proper names. The fall hawk migration over the Detroit River mouth at Lake Erie Metropark is nothing short of phenomenal. Counters assemble along the shore to record 16 plus species of raptor as they funnel over the site on their southward journey from Ontario to all parts south. On some days, the numbers are so over-whelming that names have to shortened in order to identify one before the other appears. So, Sharp-shinned Hawks become “sharpies” and Turkey Vultures are lovingly called “T.V.s”. Red-tails become “tails.” On the record sheet, the “tails” are reduced to the initials “RT.”
This past weekend, we held our 21st annual Hawkfest at Lake Erie Metropark to call attention to the hawk migration phenomenon. The festivities include identification classes, presenters with live birds, kid’s games, artwork, and food, but “tails” figured prominently in this year’s event. A select group of hawk banders (under the able guidance of veteran bander Dave Hogan) are invited to set up in a remote section of the park. During this particular weekend, any bird they happen to capture and band is brought over to the festival site for a bit of public show ‘n’ tell before it is released. This is the best part of the weekend for me. Unfortunately, it is also the one of the most unpredictable events because you never know when, or if, anything will show up in the banders nets. Last year we were skunked – not a one.
This time around, we ended up with over ten Sharp-shinned Hawks, a few Coopers Hawks, and three immature Red-tailed Hawks. In any given year, the Sharpies and “coops” can be counted in a typical catch, but the ‘tails are always an unexpected treat. The trio of young RT’s were definitely a special feature of this year’s event.
The last catch of the weekend was an immature Red-tail, so this is the bird I chose to display here. It was also the inspiration for the crummy little line of verse at the beginning of this piece (hey, it ain’t no “hey diddle diddle” but it will do). This was a young bird, probably born 4 or 5 months ago, as evidenced by the banded tail (see above) and fiery yellow eyes. Both features will change as the bird matures – the eyes turning deep brown and the “sorta purdy” tail taking on the solid rusty red hue which is responsible for the bird’s full name.
Although young, make no mistake, it was full sized and fully equipped as a mouse killer. Take a close look at those powerful talons and dagger-like claws (as well as the respectful manner in which the bander was holding these appendages). The reptilian nature of these robust feet is reminiscent of the dinosaurs they once were. When employed in the predatory trade, these tools are used to crush the prey and rupture vital innards as well as to pin the unfortunate victim to the ground for dissection. The actual dissection of the prey is managed by the hooked beak which systematically tears off chunks of flesh.
The eyes, of course, are used to spot that prey in the first place. Due to their placement they provide a binocular view of the scene before them. A frontal view of this bird (see below) reveals a full forward gaze. In this case, the creature was fixed upon me – perhaps hoping that I inch just a little bit closer…just a wee bit closer still… so that I could be taught a lesson. Oddly enough, however, a captured bird rarely bites but usually just remains in an open mouthed pose.
This youngster patiently endured its five minutes of public adoration. There were about 80 people gathered at the time and all were entranced. The paparazzi raised their cell phone cameras and recorded the scene for all different angles before the bird was released into the air at the collective count of one….two…three. A spontaneous round of applause sent it skyward and swiftly out of sight. A few downy feathers floated to earth as the only reminder of the recent happening.
Such a bird, and such an opportunity, is a magical thing. This was a wild bird and one which hopefully will never feel constrained by human hands again. The aluminum band, gifted it by the researchers, may some day be recovered and yield yet another piece in the life story of ‘tails. One harsh fact that has been revealed by banding efforts is that nearly three-quarters of young hawks, like this one, do not survive their first winters. The predatory learning curve is simply too steep and there are no second chances in nature. Let’s hope this bird will be among the top 25% that beat the odds and returns next year as a checkmark in the RT column.