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Feathered Friends – Area home to different species of hawks

A Red-shouldered Hawk finds a perch in the branches of a willow tree on a rainy February afternoon. (Photo by Bryan Stevens)

By Bryan Stevens

In recent weeks, I’ve enjoyed some observations of the region’s larger raptors, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks.

Anyone who travels along the region’s Interstate Highway System has probably noticed hawks perched in trees or on utility lines adjacent to the roadway. The section of Interstate 26 that runs between Unicoi and Johnson City is often a productive area for keeping alert for raptors. The raptor I have most often observed along this stretch of road is the Red-tailed Hawk, although I have also observed Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and American Kestrel. In the time of spring and fall migration, it’s also possible to observe Broad-winged Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk is named for its prominent red tail. However, only adults show the characteristic red tail. The affinity for Red-tailed Hawks for roadsides is a double-edged sword. Viewing a large hawk from your car is an easy way to watch birds. For inexperienced or careless raptors, however, roadside living is often rife with the chance for a collision with a car or truck. The Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers open countryside, is attracted to the margins of roads and highways because these locations also attract their favorite prey, which includes rodents like rats, squirrels and mice and other small mammals such as rabbits.

Human behavior contributes to some of the problems that hawks encounter in the zone that brings them too close for comfort to motorized vehicles. When people toss trash from a car, the scent of the litter will lure curious and hungry rodents. In turn, hunting hawks are brought to the edges of roads in search of their preferred prey, increasing the likelihood of colliding with automobiles.

In recent days, I have also noticed a Red-shouldered Hawk lurking among the branches of the large weeping willow next to the fish pond. The Red-shoulder Hawk typically prefers wetland habitats and is less likely to haunt roadsides.  According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

The Red-shouldered Hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a Killdeer. The visiting Red-shouldered Hawk has been silent so far, perhaps not wishing to draw attention. The few times the local crows have noticed the presence of any sort of raptor, they’ve flocked together to mob the unfortunate hawk. It’s also not the right time of year; during courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal, but at other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible to mistakenly think you have heard one of these large hawks. Blue Jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related Red-tailed Hawk, the Red-shouldered Hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.  The Red-shouldered Hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the Red-tailed Hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often the dominant avian predators in their respective habitats.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos Hawk and the Hawaiian Hawk. Some of these hawks have quite descriptive names, including the White-throated Hawk, Gray-lined Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk and Short-tailed Hawk. Outside the United States, raptors in the buteo genus are often known as “buzzards.”

When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both types of native vultures as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

All too often, our large hawks don’t receive the love they deserve from the public. They may even run afoul of misinformed individuals who may regard all predatory birds as “bad.” The reality is that all hawks are valuable components of a healthy, working ecosystem, with each species filling a certain niche.