My latest encounter with a Red-tailed Hawk was not exactly a personal one. It was not upon a wind-swept moor where the noble bird locked eyes with me as it perched upon the gnarled branch of a lone tree. There are no moors around here – windswept or otherwise. In this encounter we were separated by thick glass, the bird was perched on a split rail fence and was oblivious to my presence. There were a number of people standing about me and I only knew half of them. Still, it was a notable occasion.
The location was not a zoo. It was at the window looking out onto the feeding station at the Kensington Metropark Nature Center. Normally the winter scene would include a busy flock of titmice, chickadees, tree sparrows, downy woodpeckers, along with a red squirrel or two. Turkeys are frequent visitors here as well. On this morning a Red-tailed Hawk suddenly flew in and put us all on notice. Normally such a visit would be prompted by the chance to grab one of the above mentioned birds (not the Turkey, mind you). This bird made no attempt to nab the other birds, but was instead focused on a late season Chipmunk.
The chipmunk apparently dashed under the cover of a downed split rail bordering the feeding area before the Red-tail could lay a talon on it. Rather than give it up, however, the hawk stalked about on the ground around the Chipmunk’s lair for a long time and eyed up the situation from all angles. The bird would stop and try to get a fix on the hole with a side to side movement of its head and then reach out with a grabbing motion of the talons. It repeated this action time and time again. Leaving the spot to perch up on one of the high posts, the hawk would turn his head back to the original location and return to renew the predation attempt.
The center’s speaker system provided an explanation of the bird’s persistence. A loud “chip…chip…chip” could be heard. It appeared that the chipmunk was buried deep within a narrow space under the log. It could not escape, but was safe enough to give the hawk an onslaught of verbal insults. I hate to ascribe emotions to any animal, but the hawk did seem irritated by the whole thing.
As a (nature) interpreter I am always looking for opportunities to, well… frankly, interpret (nature). I realize that this can be an annoying trait at times, and for some it is annoying all the time, but it is a professional habit not easily broken (it is my…nature). I was there with a few fellow interpreters and a family with their flock of children in tow. They were clearly fascinated by seeing such a large bird only a few feet away. The fact that this bird was active, rather than sitting like a lump on a log (or a gnarled limb) added to its appeal. The situation was unusual on several levels – beyond the fact that this poor family was out-numbered by the interpreters in the room- and it was tempting to point out a few of things while the educational moment was before us.
Most chipmunks are sleeping down in their winter dens by now, but this wasn’t the most fascinating detail to point out. Besides, the Chipper was not in sight. The bird’s behavior was grist for interpretation. Although seeming odd, it was actually in keeping with the varied tactics displayed by most birds of prey. If they don’t make the initial grab they will slink along the ground like cats to finish their pursuit. This bird was a mature bird displaying the brick red tail of the species. It would be nice to at least identify the bird to the assembled folks.
I took an interpretive jab at the youth standing closest to me. “Look at that tail,” I said “You can see why it is called a Red-tailed Hawk can’t you?” The youth responded immediately and clearly. “But it has an orange tail” he said – as if to imply that it should be called an orange-tailed hawk. “Well,” I awkwardly responded, “it is…um… sorta orangish, you are right, but more of a brick-red which is why it’s called a…” But, my sentence was not to be finished because I had lost the child. He was looking down at his cell phone screen and wandering away from the window.
I completed the conversation in my mind. “I did not name the hawk, damn it. MOST normal ADULT people would see that color as red. Sure it’s not really red-red, but smart people are able to define things which are brick-red as ‘red.’ You can’t call this thing a Brick-tailed Hawk because that would be stupid. It would be even stupider to call it an Orange-tailed Hawk. The original description actually calls it the Jamaican Hawk and makes no mention of the tail at all!”
So, for my sake, please pretend you are the person standing next to me on that day. Take a look at the video here (or below) and observe the Red-tail performing some typically atypical behavior. Look at his tail and say to yourself “so, that’s why they are called Red-tailed Hawks.” Thank you for being an adult.