Hawks are complicated

Published 10:08 pm Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Hawks are complicated. Most of the birds we call hawks are buteos. But don’t fixate on that group. The fish hawk, osprey, is a completely separate animal, as is the bald eagle. Many of the other “hawks,” like the Marsh Hawk (Northern Harrier), the Sparrow Hawk (American Kestrel), the Cooper’s Hawk and the Sharp-shinned Hawk are closer to pure falcons like the peregrine. In other words, it gets confusing.

The most common hawks we see are high and circling, with broad wings and short tails — buteos — and the Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk — accipiters. The smallest hawk, the American Kestrel, is a falcon.

A drive through the country will likely show our two most common hawks up on the wire along the roadside. Sparrow Hawks (tiny) and Red Tail Hawks (big) sit on the electric lines and attack down onto field mice and other rodents. The Red Tail’s abrupt strikes reveal the reason for its name, as he halts momentum with spread wings and tail. The cheek patch on the Sparrow Hawk is distinctive — as is its narrow tail.


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So, to identify them, the Marsh Hawk (actually a harrier) has a white rump. The two buteos are high, wide-wing soarers-in-circles. The Coopers and Sharp-shinned are lower but still with broad wings for sharp turns but have narrow tails. And, the American Kestrel (falcon) is quite small, really quick, with a cheek bar.

Bill Rogers of Suffolk was finishing up his yard work Jan. 21 in the afternoon when he spied this lovely Red-shouldered Hawk on his grape arbor. He was lucky enough to get back to his house, get his camera and take this great photo from his back door for all of us to enjoy.

Notice the sharp beak for tearing flesh and the talons for grasping prey. It’s no wonder that falconry has been a royal sport for thousands of years. They are truly regal. Thanks for the photo, Bill. We’re always thrilled to know our readers are out there enjoying the beauty of nature, and we appreciate the help in bringing these great birds, as well as the importance of protecting and conserving these majestic animals and their habitat, to the attention of the public.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at b.andrews22@live.com.