Every April I look to the skies for the red tailed hawks and think of the Egyptian God Horus a solar deity who in almost every mythological tradition takes on the hawk -like quality of messenger and protector. Often the bird is depicted as an actual god/goddess. Tewa speaking Pueblo dancers adorn their headdresses with the feathers of the red tailed hawks. The stylized Eye of Horus/Isis/Maat/Hathor (note the androgynous quality suggesting the “both and” quality associated with divinity) is a relatively well-known symbol for this bird that in the natural world has unbelievably keen eyesight…
April is also the month I buried my brother’s ashes by my brook on Earth day. For a week afterwards the branches of the trees around the rich woodland earth and stone that sheltered some of his bone fragments were continuously occupied by red tailed hawks that scared away all my other birds during the day. I believed, then as now, that the spirit of my brother had incarnated through the visitation of these hawks (that normally avoid crowded woodland areas) to let me know how important it was that I had completed the circle of his life in linear time. My mother also died in April… no wonder this is such a charged month for me.
Just yesterday down by the river I witnessed three red –tailed hawks initially soaring in circles dazzling me with an amazing aerial display. Eventually one of the two smaller males disappeared ( these birds are sexually di –morphic with females being about a third larger than the males), his red tail shimmering russet and gold in the steel blue morning sun leaving the other two to rise and plummet in broad -tailed splendor over my head.
Identifying these hawks is relatively easy because of their size (they weigh up to 4 pounds and have a wingspread of 56 inches or more) Slow syncopated wing beats are also characteristic of red tails. Their actual plumage is variable in color although speckled cinnamon seems to be a dominant color at least when the light is right. Their bellies are buff and look white against the sky. Immature red tails lack a rust colored tail. All have a haunted rasping cry or scream.
Mating dances like the one I witnessed are a common sight at the end of March and April because it is time to nest and lay eggs. Red tails reach sexual maturity at about three years, take a single mate (probably for life), build a shallow nest in tall trees which they may reuse, and raise one brood of two (usually) a year. They are equally at home in field or desert. After the female incubates for a month, the downy hatchlings stay with the parents for 6 – 7 more weeks. The voracious chicks require much food and grow slowly keeping both parents busy with hunting. By the time they fledge they are as big as their parents.
The red tail hawk ranges throughout North America into Canada and northern Alaska reaching as far south as Panama. These birds are not migratory except in Northern latitudes. When I first moved to the mountains of Maine thirty years ago all red tails fled south during the winter months, but more recently can be seen scrying the skies all year long. Farther south like here in Abiquiu, they are year round residents.
Carnivores by nature these raptors have strong hooked beaks; their feet have three toes pointing forward and one pointing backward. Their diet primarily consists of small rodents including rabbits, hares, moles, gophers, snakes, and lizards. They will also kill quail, grouse, and pheasants.
Since the beginning of recorded history birds of prey have been both despised and revered. The sport of falconry – using raptors as hunting aids – has been practiced in Asia and Egypt since 3000 BCE. There is a movie called “The Eagle Huntress” well worth seeing that allows the viewer to get a bird’s eye view of what it is like to fly and hunt like a hawk or eagle.
Yet these birds continue to be ruthlessly destroyed because of real or imagined competition with humans for game and domesticated animals. This disgusting behavior highlights the outdated and destructive “man against nature” paradigm that puts human rights above those of all animals. We are learning the hard way that being at the top of the food chain is now killing us too with ground water, polluted air, plastics, salt, clothing and other aspects related to a ruthless industry that privileges humans over other species.
Although in some states raptors are protected, they are also indiscriminately shot by people who believe they are pests because they occasionally kill chickens.
No matter how frequently I see these hawks I remain in awe of them, in part perhaps because of my personal story but also because in their aerial majesty they highlight the wonder of all birds that inhabit the skies marking the changing of seasons.