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Red-tailed hawk

Robin Red-Tail

Source: Personal Experience

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My son called from a nearby playground and told me about a hawk behaving strangely. I went to investigate. I saw it. I'm still not sure I believe it.

I had spent most of the day hiking up to Arethusa Falls, including about five or six hours driving up and back. Figured I'd check out a few things and see how my on-line empire was holding together, update hikingwithchuck.com with some exciting new pictures from the morning's hike, then commence kicking back for the evening.

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on my latest story, the phone rang. My son was at Roby Park in southern Nashua with his daughter, my older son, and his two kids, and there was a hawk behaving strangely.

He said it was just walking back and forth on the grass eating bugs or something. He had gotten very close to it, and it didn't fly away or even pay him any attention.

(Funny, I just mentioned in another story that I'm the only one in my family with this fascination with nature. I didn't bother asking what kind of hawk it was.)

A hawk eating bugs. I immediately thought American kestrel, but they don't walk around to catch bugs, they swoop down on the wing like the falcons that they are.

"How big is this hawk?"

"It's bigger than Dude," he said, referring to his girlfriend's papillion.

Not a falcon or one of the tiny Accipeter hawks. And if it had been an eagle or an osprey, my son might have described its size in terms of Leia, the American Staffordshire terrier. This must be one of the Buteo hawks, and by far the most common Buteo in New Hampshire is the red-tailed hawk (B. jamaicensis).

A red-tailed hawk eating bugs?!? Better confirm this.

"Is it brown with a white chest and belly?" Maybe a young red-tail would eat bugs. "Maybe the chest has brown flecks on it, maybe sort of arranged in streaks?"

"Definitely a white chest."

"Sounds like a red-tailed hawk. Maybe it's injured." That would explain why it didn't fly away at his approach, and perhaps also why it had resorted to eating bugs.

"It has a feather sticking kind of crooked out of its wing."

"I'll be there in a few minutes."

I grabbed my camera and headed out to Roby Park, where I hardly ever go because it's just a playground. No woods or anything fun like that.

On the short drive, I wondered how I might get in touch with somebody qualified to handle an injured hawk, such as a nearby raptor club. Was there one in Nashua? Surely there would be one in Manchester. Should I call the police? It will be getting dark in a couple of hours. Maybe I should call the police now to start the ball rolling? No, better make sure of the situation first. It can wait a few more minutes.

I arrived at Roby Park and expected to find my sons and grandchildren in one of the baseball fields watching the hawk. There were three young men playing catch, but nobody else in the fields.

It was my sons and one of their friends. The kids were in the fenced-in playground with swings and monkey bars and such.

How can people go about doing boring things like throwing a ball around when there's a magnificent bird of prey to be observed? How can the kids prefer the see-saw to watching a hawk up close?

So, I left all those weird people to their devices, and set out into the baseball field to see what the hawk was doing.

Sure enough, there was a red-tailed hawk wandering around the outfield, making the occasional peck at the ground. It was small, but had fully adult plumage, with the extra-crisp rusty red tail that told me this was a male. (Females are much larger, and have sort of washed-out colors.)

Red-tailed hawk in baseball field

The red-tailed hawk hunting out in left field.

Red-tailed hawk

The red-tailed hawk watching for something in the grass.

I approached the hawk obliquely, trying not to alarm it. I got to within thirty feet and watched what was going on. I didn't see any obvious signs of injury, but it was most unusual that this bird was not the least bit concerned about my presence.

I stood there, about thirty feet away, observing his behavior for a while. The hawk would stand still for several seconds, look one way for a while, then turn his head and look in another direction for a while. Then he would fix his gaze on one spot, trot over to it, and pick something up and eat it.

Red-tailed hawk looking left

The red-tailed hawk looking left, not moving.

Red-tailed hawk looking down and walking

The red-tailed hawk with his attention fixed on something as he walks quickly toward it.

As the bird stooped to pick up whatever it was he was eating, I noticed something. As he lowered his tail to keep his balance, his primary flight feathers were no longer tucked against the sides of his tail. I could see the two longest feathers crossing above his back, sticking out at odd angles. I assume this is what my son had interpreted as a crooked feather. No, the hawk was not injured at all.

Red-tailed hawk picking something up

The red-tailed hawk bends over, and you can see his crossed primary flight feathers.

Red-tailed hawk looking right

The red-tailed hawk resumes his hunting.

After eating whatever it was, the hawk went back to watching for the next whatever-it-was.

Red-tailed hawk looking left

The red-tailed hawk looks sharply to the left as he hunts.

Red-tailed hawk looking right, toward the camera

The red-tailed hawk looking toward me, but concentrating on the grass.

I worked my way a little closer to get a better look. I got within about ten feet, but the bird's hunting activities meant that he frequently moved away from me. He was not fleeing from me, just moving on to catch the next whatever-it-was.

Red-tailed hawk looking ahead

The red-tailed hawk scans the grass less than ten feet away from me.

Red-tailed hawk facing away

The red-tailed hawk moved away from me, not in fear, but simply hunting.

Sometimes I got lucky. The hawk would see a whatever-it-was between himself and me, and he would actually come closer to me.

Red-tailed hawk walking toward the camera, looking down

The red-tailed hawk eyes something directly in front of him as he walks obliquely toward me.

Red-tailed hawk walking toward the camera, looking forward

Having eaten something, the red-tailed hawk walks closer to me as he approaches his next quarry.

I continued following the hawk around, observing his strange behavior. Stop and look around a few seconds, fix his gaze on something in the grass, and trot over to pick it up and eat it.

Red-tailed hawk trotting

The red-tailed hawk trots briskly toward his next morsel.

Red-tailed hawk looking left

The red-tailed hawk on the next search.

Red-tailed hawk trotting

Trotting again.

Red-tailed hawk looking right

Searching again.

Red-tailed hawk searching to the right

Now turning to face to my right.

Red-tailed hawk looking away

The red-tailed hawk was unconcerned enough to look completely away from me.

At some point, it occurred to me that the hawk might be a little more relaxed, if that were possible, if I were not five times as tall as him. I began crawling after the hawk instead of walking, and I sat cross-legged whenever I was close and he was in his "looking around" phase of the hunt. Now I was nearly at his eye level, just a little taller than the bird. It seemed to be working. Even when I was within ten feet, the hawk came closer still. And I was able to get a glimpse of what he was eating. It looked rather like a worm hanging from his mouth for an instant before he gulped it down. Sometimes he had to struggle to pull the reluctant creature from the grass. Was it a caterpillar clinging to a stalk of grass, or an earthworm retreating into a burrow? I couldn't tell what it was, just some longish thing wriggling in his beak for a moment. I never got a picture of that, but in a few of the pictures, he had a piece of grass stuck in the right corner of his mouth.

Red-tailed hawk walking toward the camera

The red-tailed hawk walking toward me from less than ten feet away. You can see a piece of
grass in his mouth. (Click for the full-sized picture.)

Red-tailed hawk with head turned away

Even from this range, the hawk was nonchalant enough to turn his back as he searched for
his prey.

I was reminded of my experience with the great blue heron last summer. This was even more exciting in some ways, because the hawk was not only close, but sometimes walking toward me and looking directly at me. I began to see something I had never seen before: My own reflection in the eye of a wild predator.

Red-tailed hawk with my reflection in his eye

If you look closely at the full-sized picture, you can just make out my reflection in his eye.

Red-tailed hawk taking a step with fixed gaze

The hawk locks his gaze on his next quarry and starts to walk obliquely toward me.

Still, sometimes the hawk's hunting took him some distance away from me. But he was never alarmed when I followed, and I once again got just as close as ever.

Red-tailed hawk looking straight at the camera

The red-tailed hawk looks straight toward me, not concerned about me, but looking for his prey.

Wide view of red-tailed hawk on baseball field

This wider view, with the hawk about twenty feet away, shows the surroundings. In the
distance, where a black car is moving downhill toward the right, is busy Spit Brook Road.
At left is the fenced-in playground. Between us and the playground is the bike-trick
track where a couple of kids practice their moves less than 120 yards from the hunting hawk.

I noticed that when the hawk picked up one of the things it was eating from among standing blades of grass, it closed its nictitating membrane, but when it found whatever it was eating in a patch of thatch, with no standing blades, it did not close them.

Red-tailed hawk pecks in grass and closes nictitating membrane

The red-tailed hawk closes his nictitating membrane as he picks something up from the grass.

Red-tailed hawk walking to the right

The red-tailed hawk walks slowly, looking for his next target.

In my excitement and fascination with the hawk itself, I was forgetting the main thing I wanted to learn: What was he eating? As he looked this way and that, I tried to follow his gaze. Although hawks have forward-looking binocular vision, their eyes are more on the sides of their heads than are human eyes, so I could not trace his gaze to whatever it was he was looking at. (You try it the next time you find yourself within ten feet of a hawk eating bugs!)

Red-tailed hawk looking left

With his head held level, he's just scanning.

Red-tailed hawk looking down to right

When he angles his head downward, he's found a target.

Red-tailed hawk looking down to right

He's locked onto something, but I can't tell what.

Red-tailed hawk walking and looking down

He's moving in for the kill, but I don't know what he's aiming at.

Suddenly, my adventure was over. The hawk looked deliberately toward the north, just as he had done dozens of times while hunting. But this time, quicker than my camera could recover for another picture, the hawk took off. He flew out over the playground, turned east, and disappeared.

Red-tailed hawk looking left

I thought he was just scanning for the next target, but he flew away a second later.

Now I could settle down for a moment and try to find what the hawk was eating. I scanned the lawn, back and forth, looking for bugs or something.

Eventually, I realized I was doing it all wrong. Just too excited. What I should be doing was exactly what the hawk was doing. Hold my eyes still and watch for movement, don't scan around constantly looking for bugs.

It worked almost immediately. I saw something move, and turned my gaze toward it just in time to see an earthworm (order Haplotaxida, suborder Lumbricina) disappear into a burrow. In another few seconds, I saw an earthworm wriggling in the grass completely exposed.

Small earthworm

One of the worms the red-tailed hawk was eating.

Yes, the hawk was eating worms, just like a robin, but he wasn't digging them up as a robin would. His beak was not suited to that anyway, but it didn't matter. The worms were there for the picking up - hundreds of them.

It had been raining nearly all day in Nashua (though I had had a reasonably dry day up in Crawford Notch). Maybe the worms were flooded out of their burrows, and came out to enjoy the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine.

Whatever the case, how did this hawk know about this bounty? How had he learned that worms are abundant and free for the picking up in this baseball field? And why hadn't the usual worm-eaters come to gather their share? Did the hawk's presence frighten them away? Were they unaware that worms come out of their burrows on a sunny afternoon after a rainy morning, and the hawk had simply outsmarted them?

You never run out of questions when you start observing what wild creatures do.

Red-tailed hawks sometimes eat worms. And suburban red-tailed hawks can learn to be absolutely unafraid of people sitting on the grass ten feet away from them.

And now I've seen the most amazing behavior I've ever seen. Until the next time I see the most amazing behavior I've ever seen.

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