Last week, I traveled to State College to have lunch with an old friend. On the drive there and back, I was treated to an unusual amount of sightings of red-tailed hawks along the route.
While I was in the area, I also drove down to the Benner Springs fish hatchery to see the newly opened access area on a nearby section of Spring Creek. During that diversion, I spotted four different red-tails perched in trees or fenceposts in less than a mile. I've always been fascinated by birds of prey and never tire of seeing any raptor in the wild.
These remarkable birds are specialized and highly efficient predators who make their living as hunters using incredible eyesight and needle-sharp talons to capture prey.
Red-tailed hawks are quite common and widespread in Pennsylvania. They are year-round residents and currently nest in almost every county in the state.
If you aren't seeing red-tails during your outings, you probably aren't paying attention. Red-tails spend much time perched on tree limbs, fences, utility poles and other high objects that allow them to survey open areas for prey.
Studies have shown that red-tails will chose habitats that have an abundance hunting perches over areas that might have a higher density of prey species. I frequently see red-tails sitting on light standards along I-99, just waiting for a mouse to show itself in the dried-up crown vetch below.
Red-tailed hawks tend to be a little more conspicuous on their elevated perches this time of year because of the absence of foliage and their relatively large size. For comparison, most red-tails are the size of a crow or slightly larger, although their body shape is more broad-breasted than that of a crow.
The plumage of adult and juvenile red-tailed hawks differs considerably. Young birds appear mostly gray and white, including a grayish tail with dark bars. Mature birds tend to be more brownish than gray and, of course, possess the characteristic rusty-red tail with no bars. Both young and old birds will show a dark belly band, although this feature is sometimes absent on individual adult red-tails.
If you happen to see a large hawk sitting in a tree or on a telephone pole this time of year, you can be almost ninety percent sure it is a red-tailed hawk. There are, however, a couple of other possibilities. Both rough-legged and red-shouldered hawks spend the winter in our region, although neither species is as common as the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk. Rough-legged hawks are slightly larger than red-tails, are much darker on the breast area and have a black and white tail. Red-shouldered hawks average slightly smaller than red-tails and have reddish-brown breasts and upper wing patches.
Some folks with backyard birdfeeders often have encounters with two of our other wintertime raptors. Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are smaller hawks that often prey on the types of small songbirds that are attracted to birdfeeders. Almost every winter, I talk to one or two homeowners who were stunned to see a sharpie or Cooper's swoop in and snatch away one of their other feathered guests from the feeder. I usually try to explain that their backyard feeding efforts had just moved up one notch on the food chain and that hawks have their place in nature and have to eat too.
Sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks are very similar in overall appearance. Sharpies are somewhat smaller, averaging 10 to 14 inches in length, while Cooper's average 14 to 20 inches long. Using size alone to identify these species can be troublesome because a large individual sharp-shinned can be almost the same size as a smaller individual Cooper's. A good pair of binoculars and a bird field guide is the best way to be sure of which species you are looking at.
Our smallest raptor is also one of my favorites. The American kestrel is a classified as a falcon and lives in Pennsylvania year-round. It's only about the size of a robin and used to be known as a" sparrow hawk." American kestrels are handsome birds, especially through binoculars that enable one to see their distinct markings.
The back and tail are reddish-brown. Males have light blue patches on their wings. The head and cheeks are also highly marked.
You'll often see this tiny falcon perched on telephone or power lines near fields or other open areas where it hunts for mice and other small rodents during the winter.
During the warmer months, they will also eat insects. Kestrels can also hunt by hovering with rapidly beating wings.