Hawk identification, at its core, is a fairly straight forward thing. Going by differences in body plan, pattern, and flight behavior one can basically separate one hawk from anudder (two have a much harder time, but that is a different story). In it’s particulars, however, it much more challenging. There are many dirty secrets of hawk watching. Because birds within a single species can come in many different age plumages and adult color varieties there is no such thing as an “average” bird of any type. Perhaps even more sinister, individual birds can alter their appearance by flaring tail feathers, bending wings, and fluffing feathers. They often defy any and all bird guide illustrations. This latter fact also applies to us humans – I mean, compare your sad saggy face in the morning mirror to that at mid-day, etc.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a prime example of this “one hawk, many faces in the mirror” concept. These large buteos (that is the raptor band they belong to – a hangover from the 60’s rock group) come in a rainbow of plumages and their immature stages lack the name-sake reddish tail, but their appearance changes dramatically depending on their mood. A fluffed out bird looks massive when compared to a rain-drenched bird, for example.
A recently captured Red-tail (banded by Dave Hogan at our mid-September Hawkfest at Lake Erie Metropark) brought us an opportunity to see the “hawk in the mirror” effect. This bird, an immature born earlier in the year, displayed a very un-Red Tail-like, but marvelous, crest.
This hawk was, to say the least, a bit peeved at being detained from his autumn migration – thus the reason for the flared crest. He originally altered his course to nab the bait Starling placed at the center of the banding net. The next thing he knew, he was pinned to the ground under a net and gifted with a bright new aluminum band. Now, at the time of these photographs, he was being displayed in front of a hundred people and really not liking it. A quick jab at his captor’s (Dave’s) hand drew some blood and he rose up to face all other takers. Dave subtly stepped over to cover the rich red splat on the sidewalk (there were children about, you see) and continued to display his unwilling guest.
In a passive state, this fellow would not have shown any hint of a crest. When in an aggressive or intimidated mood, all the feathers on the back of the head go up like the hackles on a dog. The purpose is to look larger than normal and hopefully scare away any opponent. The effect is , well….,effective. I’ve never noticed the particular way the leading portion of the crest divides into two owl-like tufts and the white bases of the feathers gleam when viewed form the back. When in this pose, the look approaches that of a Harpy. These South American monkey eating eagles have a prominent crest all the time.
The crest, combined with an open mouth and a fixed – almost cross eyed – stare, combined to produce an especially unusual appearance. All returned to normal when the bird was hefted into the air at the collective count of three. Lifted by half a dozen powerful wing strokes he lifted over the tree line and vanished back into the migratory river of air.
In retrospect, it probably isn’t correct to claim this crested look as “un-Red-tail like”. Having seen it and experienced it, I’d have to say that this bird was actually revealing his true wild spirit. This was a fleeting taste of raw nature.