Old Mr. Red-tail
By Kenneth Turner Blackshaw
As I child, I was fortunate that my mother had the wisdom to read to me about the wonderful world of nature depicted by Thornton Burgess. Such characters as Farmer Brown's Boy, Bowser the Hound, Little Joe Otter, Sammy Jay, and yes -- Old Mr. Red-tail, gave me a fanciful appreciation for wild life around me. Mr. Red-tail's view of the green forest and meadow from high above was etched in my mind. The tales of Blacky the Crow and his compatriots raising the alarm when Mr. Red-tail was hunting are brought to mind even now, when we see Nantucket's crows do the same thing.
The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most visible of our birds of prey. Most folks recognize them circling high in the sky, scarcely flapping a wing to do so, flashing a bit of rusty red as they steer with their tail. They frequently perch atop our phone poles and chimneys and that's where problems set in. We get calls about huge birds -- they must be eagles -- or owls. I once scrambled out to Fulling Mill Road and explained to some enthusiastic observers how that white looking bird perched in the fir tree was not a Snowy Owl. Red-tails appear very white from the front.
On Nantucket, we are gladdened to see Red-tails in our skies all year long. Prior to 1944, no one had ever found a nest here, so Edith Folger Andrews was breaking new ground when she wrote about the first nests in her 1948 book. The winter population is illustrated by our Christmas Bird Count numbers which show a general trend upward from a low of two in 1965, to 45 in 2002 and 2003.
Red-tails can be found all over the North America, although they show different color phases in different locations. A Krider's Red-tail, found in the prairies, is very pale. A Harlan's Red-tail, also western, is almost all black, with a white tail rather than red. The species name, Buteo jamaicensis, refers to the fact that it was originally discovered down in Jamaica. For years, our hawks up here were called Buteo borealis, but were discovered to be the same as jamaicensis in the early 1900's.
The Buteo in the scientific name refers to the major family of hawks where Red-tails reside. Buteos have broad, rounded wings and a relatively short, rounded tail and typically soar in the sky as they hunt. They have fantastic vision. We see them soar up to where they are just a dot in the sky, then fold their wings and drop like stones on an unsuspecting mouse, close to a thousand feet below.
Red-tails have a wingspan of just about four feet, with females larger and heavier than the males. They are mainly brown on the back and white in front with a light band across the belly. Adult Red-tails show a nice rusty-red tail in flight, particularly when viewed from above. These large hawks mate for life, a span that may exceed 15 years. There are reports of Red-tails maintaining a solitary existence after their mate was shot, returning to the nest site each year, working on the nest, and hunting on territory.
This species has recently gotten attention in New York City because a pair set up territory and built a nest on an apartment building overlooking Central Park. They became the subject of a book about this called 'Red-tails in Love' and a subsequent movie which you can rent -- 'Pale Male'. The flight footage in the video is extraordinary and the scenes showing the young hawks attempting their first flights are very entertaining. They did a huge amount of flying without ever leaving the nest!
Right now a pair of Red-tails is working on a nest somewhere near the Nantucket Platform Tennis Association courts off of the Polpis Road. I've been observing this pair for three or four years now. Sometimes play stops when one makes a low pass over the courts and gives its blood-curdling scream -- "keeeeeear". It is such a call of the wild that it was chosen to be a standard part of the titles for the TV series "Northern Exposure".
On Nantucket, most soaring birds we see, besides gulls, are Red-tails. Now is the time when courtship begins for Nantucket's Red-tails so they are more visible, doing their nuptial flights. Over the next few weeks, watch for pairs soaring high in the sky, doing their aerial mating. As they circle, high above your heads, and think about the huge nest below, maybe three feet across, that will soon have several eggs in it. The annual cycle for the Red-tail is just getting under way.
George C. West creates illustrations for these articles.
If you enjoy social birding, every Sunday a group meets in the parking lot in front of the Nantucket High School at 8 a.m.
To hear about rare birds, or to leave a bird report call the Massachusetts Audubon hot line at 888-224-6444, option 4.