The migrant birds mostly departed the Barrington area a couple months ago. A few may linger – some bluebirds, robins, perhaps even a yellow-rumped warbler or two. Some may be able to find enough food to sustain them through the winter, but most will leave for places where prospects for wild food are easier.
One species that tends to live year ‘round in our area, favoring countryside over town, is the red-tailed hawk. And winter is a prime season for spotting this member of the Buteo genus. With its breast of snow white feathers above a darker-feathered “belt,” the red-tailed hawk is conspicuous on a tree perch, gathering sun above a winter field. Fluffing out its feathers to maximize warmth, the red-tail can appear larger than it actually is.
Often the feature that gives the hawk its name, the red tail, is hard to see, especially if the bird is perched facing you. But if the hawk is aloft, soaring with wings and tail spread wide as is typical of buteos, it periodically will reveal the red – or, more accurately, chestnut – hue of its tail feathers when it banks.
Juveniles, however, do not sport the red tail until they are three or four years old. Like most raptors, they have adolescent plumage that differentiates them from adults. The tail is brown and banded and the breast feathers are streaked.
Red-tailed hawks occur most commonly in open countryside where they can cast their keen gaze on fields for careless voles and mice that constitute much of their diet. They will pounce on the rodents with their talons and carry them to a tree branch to consume.
But these large hawks inhabit cities too, where squirrels and rats are abundant. Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk that has nested for years above an arched window of a swank apartment building on Fifth Avenue in New York City, has been immortalized in both book (Red-Tails in Love, by Marie Winn) and film (“The Legend of Pale Male,” by Frederic Lilien).
Just last month in Chicago, a group of birders that meets the first Tuesday of every month to bird the lakefront near McCormick Bird Sanctuary, was treated to close-up views of a young red-tailed hawk in flight, perched, and hovering over the roof-top garden on the parking garage. We were able to study every feather and watch its eyes as they darted in multiple directions for a glimpse of rodents or rabbis. Red-tailed hawks may be our most common raptor, but that experience was uncommon and special.
It will not be long – March or April – before red-tailed hawks begin building nests to raise new broods. They typically use large twigs and branches to construct round platforms with an inner depression for the one to three eggs. Mostly it’s the larger female that incubates the eggs and shelters the young which usually hatch in late April or early May.
But that part of the annual cycle is yet to come. For now, at the onset of winter, let your eyes scan tree lines for red-tailed hawks facing the sun, and the skies for the hawks as they soar in search of prey.
About the Author
Wendy Paulson has lived in Barrington Hills since 1975, and has led bird walks in the area for many years. She re-established the Nature Lady program in District 220 and St. Anne’s in the late 70s, under the auspices of The Garden Club and Little Garden Club of Barrington.
Wendy developed the education program for Citizens for Conservation, initiated and edited its newsletter, and has been an active volunteer with CFC for over 30 years.
During interludes in New York City and Washington, DC, she taught classes about birds in the public schools and is helping to develop a similar program in Chicago public schools with Openlands.
Wendy is chairman of The Bobolink Foundation, serves on the board or advisory committee of multiple conservation and bird-related organizations, both domestic and international, and is former chairman of IL and NY chapters of The Nature Conservancy.
She and her husband Hank have two grown children and are avid hikers, cyclists, and kayakers.
Wendy is also a regular contributor at 365Barrington.com sharing profiles of birds found in the Barrington area. CLICK HERE to read all of Wendy’s posts published in our Birds of Barrington series and watch for her next contribution which will be published early next month.
Do you have a question about birds you’ve seen in Barrington? Just enter you question in the comments box for this post and we’ll ask Wendy!