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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: To ID hawks, eliminate the red-tail

The red-tailed hawk is easily the most common raptor in this part of the world, and it is most conspicuous in late August, as young-of-the year come out of the nests and perch on utility poles across the Red River Valley.

The red-tailed hawk is a bird of open country.

It is a "sit-and-wait" predator, set to pounce on passing prey, mostly ground lovers such as small mammals, snakes, grassland birds and even insects.

These habits create circumstances in which red-tailed hawks are often observed. One is at rest in places that provide good visibility. This assumes some elevation.

Hawk perches include the outer branches of trees in the area's shelterbelts, but the hawks are often hard to see there. They don't choose the highest limbs, but those somewhat below the top of the tree, and so they tend to blend into the foliage.

Telephone and electric poles are just about perfect perches for red-tailed hawks and better for hawk watchers. The hunched outline of a hawk often tops these features at this time of year.

Once in awhile, though not often, red-tailed hawks perch on rock piles or hay bales.

There, the hawks are not inactive. They are alert. From these elevated perches, they pounce on passing prey. Sometimes, the hawks miss, of course, but a hawk on the ground probably means a hawk that has killed, or tried to kill.

The hawk's perching habit sets up another scenario, flight. Often, the birds are seen pushing off from perching spots, usually in response to a passing car or, perhaps, to some social instinct that's lost to human observers.

In such a situation, the hawk displays its telltale field mark, the red tail. It's especially obvious in a bird flying away from an observer. The tail stands out pretty clearly in a soaring bird, as well.

The tail doesn't always clinch identification, however, because it can be slow to develop in juvenile birds, and in molting adults it can be rather drab.

Other field marks can help. One is a band of streaking across the belly. This is not always obvious, but when it is, it helps separate the red-tailed hawk from other open country raptors. Another is the leading edge of the wing, which appears dark in red-tailed hawks.

Red-tails are by far the most numerous of local open-country hawks, amounting to as much as 80 percent of sightings. That means the first step in hawk identification must be to determine if the bird in question is a red-tail. There are other possibilities.

Swainson's hawk would be next in frequency. This bird is dark on the throat and chest and shows a dark trailing edge on the wings. The ferruginous hawk, not frequent here, is a large, light-colored hawk that shows rust-colored legs against a white belly and light areas in the wings that the bird guides sometimes call "windows."

Northern harriers are abundant in area grasslands, but their behavior is quite different than these other hawks. They tend to wobble from side to side when they fly, and they rarely show up very far above the ground.

Merlins and kestrels, both small falcons, also occur in open country, but they are not likely to be confused with the broad-winged soaring hawks.

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