Jul 02 2008
The nest is empty.
Last week two red-tailed hawks took their first flight from the nest near my office. Several things intrigued me about the way they did it.
First, it took them two weeks to progress from flapping hops to flying away. This seemed to take only a week for the peregrines. Perhaps the learning curve for red-tails is longer because they’re larger and heavier.
Then, in their first flights the red-tails refused to land on trees. Instead they flew to WQED’s building, our satellite dish and a TV antenna. I expected them to land in the trees near their nest but I guess they thought the trees looked scary because they grew up in a gutter.
And then there was the whining. When they were nest-bound I never heard them make a sound. After they flew they became very noisy about food. I found them easily last Friday because they were whining from the floodlights.
So now there are four large, similar-looking hawks outside my office window. How do I tell the difference between the adults and their kids?
As you can guess, behavior is a huge hint. The babies beg and the adults supply food. But what if they’re perched alone?
The easiest field mark is their tail. I’ll use this photo of an immature red-tailed hawk by Jamey Stewart to illustrate. Notice that this bird’s tail, protruding below his two wing tips, is brown with faint horizontal stripes. An adult red-tailed hawk has a rusty red tail. It’s that easy – red versus brown.
There’s one gotcha about this bird that you can’t see here. Jamey sent me two photos of the immature red-tail that visited Duquesne University’s campus last week. One showed the bird’s back and there I clearly saw half-grown rusty red feathers, hidden by his wings in the photo above.
So this immature bird is not a fledging. Chuck Tague says they begin to grow red tail feathers at about one year old. Red-tailed hawks take 3-4 years to mature so this bird has some years to go before he’s an adult.
p.s. Thanks to Chuck for clarifying the age at which the red tail feathers grow. I also learned that immature red-tails have yellow irises (eyes). See above! When red-tailed hawks mature their eyes change to a dark rusty color.
(photo by Jamey Stewart)