Immature Broad-winged Hawk
The broad-wing’s common name is a bit misleading. True, this is a buteo, one of the soaring hawks, but its wings are no broader than those of our other buteos, such as the red-tailed hawk or the red-shouldered hawk. The broad-wing is in fact our smallest buteo, about the size of an overweight crow, with a wingspan of 32 -39 inches. The body has a chunky, compact appearance. While the broad-winged hawk looks very much like a scaled-down version of the red-tail, its tail is totally unlike that of its larger red-tailed relative. The broad-wing’s tail is conspicuously marked with wide black and white bands. Adult birds typically have two white and three black bands of equal width. The breast is barred with reddish-brown. Immatures have more and narrower bands on the tail, and the overall effect is dark, with the white pushed out by the black. The breast feathers are not barred, but instead streaked vertically with dark brown.
The broad-wing leads a double life. It is a bird of the woodlands during the summer months, building a poorly constructed nest in forested areas that include lakes, streams, or swamps. The 2 or 3 eggs are laid in mid-April or early June, and the bird remains in seclusion in its forest home until fall. However, then the broad-wing comes out of its hiding place in a dramatic way. Beginning in September, this hawk participates in spectacular group migrations. After gathering into bands that number anywhere from 20 to hundreds of individuals, the hawks follow established flyways out of the East to their southern U.S. wintering grounds. Flyways in general follow mountain ridges and lake shorelines that provide migrating birds with thermals and updrafts. Eastern flyways follow the Appalachians or the western and northern shorelines of the Great Lakes. Concentration points such as Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania can reveal incredible flights to the interested observer; in 1979, 21,448 broad-wings were counted passing over Hawk Mountain in one day in mid-September. These group flights are made up of kettles or bands of birds; when hawks fly together, they are said to be kettling. The name may be descriptive - the hawks do sometimes seem to be boiling like the bubbles in a kettle as they change altitude, gliding from one thermal or updraft to another.
The gentle little broad-wing is a totally inoffensive bird, a hunter of such small prey as insects, snakes, toads, frogs, and mice. Its call note is equally gentle. It is not the high-pitched kee-arr of the red-tailed hawk, but a rather plaintive pss-ee-oh that many writers liken to the call of the wood peewee.
The broad-wing is the commonest of our hawks, and it was not adversely affected by the pesticide DDT as were bird hunters such as the Cooper’s hawk. Its greatest enemy seems to be our system of highways and backwoods roads, where many birds are killed or injured annually when they swoop down to snatch up an insect or a toad, only to collide with a speeding car.
This bold, powerful raptor is the largest of North America’s three species of accipiters, or bird-hunting hawks (the other two, in descending order of size, are the Cooper’s hawk and the sharp-shinned hawk). Accipiters are resident in forested areas of Canada and the northern and northeastern United States. All three species have relatively short, rounded wings that maneuver them adroitly through the woods, as well as a long tail that acts as a rudder. Another hallmark of these forest hawks is long legs, which the birds use to pluck out quarry that has taken cover in brush or undergrowth. Accipiters can be readily identified in flight by their wingbeat pattern, several quick flaps followed by a glide. Unlike buteos such as the red-tailed hawk and the broad-winged hawk, accipiters do not typically soar.
A mature goshawk is a truly striking bird, with a blood-red eye emphasized by a white eyestripe and black cheeks and crown. The brilliant red color takes three or four years to develop; young birds have pale yellow eyes. First-year goshawks wear brown feathers, with streaked underparts. During their second summer they molt into adult plumage, and thereafter sport a finely barred pale-gray breast, with darker blue-gray feathers on the back. In flight they look pale, earning them the soubriquet "Gray Ghost." The goshawk has been given many names over the years, most of them uncomplimentary. In the past it was viewed with disfavor by farmers because of its habit of haunting chicken yards. Sportsmen still dislike the species because it takes game birds such as grouse (Not exclusively, however. In Pennsylvania, for example, studies have shown that the goshawk’s most frequent prey is red squirrels and crows.). An adjective sometimes applied to it is "bloodthirsty," and indeed the goshawk will hunt even when it is not hungry. This may well be due, however, to the species’ evolution in northern climes, where prey, particularly in winter, may be hard to come by, and is often subject to extreme population swings. Under these conditions, the successful hunter learns to hunt when food is available. And the goshawk is a successful hunter, so much so that it is currently expanding its range southward. Although the reasons for this are still unclear, it may be that the gos is taking over habitats formerly occupied by the Cooper’s hawk. In the days of classical falconry, the goshawk was given the title of "Cook’s Bird," because it could be relied upon to provide food for the pot. It is still widely used in falconry, although only experienced falconers are allowed to have one. The goshawk’s aggressive, high-strung disposition make this a bird for experts.
At 19 to 27 inches long, with a wingspan of 40 to 47 inches across, the goshawk is one of North America’s largest hawks. A secretive bird, it is seldom seen except during the nesting season. Then, however, goshawks are fiercely (and noisily) aggressive, defending the nest against all comers, including people. The larger female plays the dominant role, swooping down on intruders with flashing red eyes and then melting back into the forest. Its secretive habits protect the species from man-made hazards to some degree, although goshawks are still (illegally) shot and trapped.
The dashing, dark-eyed peregrine falcon is a master of the air, and so great are its powers of flight that it has established breeding populations on every continent in the world with the exception of Antarctica. The very name peregrine means "wanderer" or "foreigner" (the word pilgrim is derived from it), and this falcon is one of the most widely distributed birds in the world. It is also the fastest animal in the world in its breathtaking stoops or dives, reaching speeds as high as 200 MPH. In level or horizontal flight the peregrine is much slower, and can in fact be outflown by a pigeon. Males and females are marked alike with a dark cap and mustache, but they differ in size, with the female the larger. The males are known as tiercels because they are roughly 1/3 the size of their mates. The narrow, pointed wings measure 43 to 46 inches from tip to tip; weight ranges from 16 ounces for a very small male to 53 ounces for a very large female. Peregrines vary in size and coloration throughout their extensive range. The largest and most heavily patterned birds come from islands in the Bering Sea, while one of the smallest forms occurs in India. North American peregrines are intermediate between these two extremes in size.
This is a bird-hunting specialist, knocking its prey out of the sky with a slashing blow from its powerful feet. The quarry is not snatched in the air unless it is very small; usually it is allowed to fall to the ground. There the peregrine may use a special projection on its upper beak to snap its victim’s spine. Prey ranges in size from songbirds (especially those such as flickers, red-winged blackbirds, and blue jays that show a flashy feather pattern in flight) to ducks, geese, and even herons. Waterfowl is so frequent a target that the peregrine’s old name was duck hawk. Another favorite prey is pigeons, which can occasionally cause the falcon problems. Peregrines are susceptible to a few lethal diseases, and one of them, trichomoniasis, can be contracted by eating infected doves and pigeons.
Because of its spectacular speed, exquisite grace in flight, and tractable disposition, the peregrine has always been highly prized by falconers. It is therefore appropriate that falconers have played a major role in saving this magnificent species, for by the 1950s it was obvious that something had gone appallingly wrong with peregrine breeding populations. A deadly pattern of thin-shelled eggs and parental egg-eating led to widespread nesting failures. By the late 1960s DDT had been pinpointed as the culprit, but the product was not banned until 1972 when DDT was found to break down into DDE, then build up in human tissues as a carcinogen. For many years to follow, DDT still found its way onto store shelves in the U.S. and, for more than 20 years, was produced by U.S. companies to sell in countries that had no such bans on the pesticide. For the peregrine, the U.S. ban on the substance came almost too late - it already had disappeared as a breeding bird east of the Mississippi. The plight of the peregrine focused worldwide attention on the dangers of persistent pesticides, and falconers concentrated their efforts on captive breeding. To date more than 2,000 captive-bred birds have been released into the wild. Now, many cities have pairs nesting atop city buildings and bridges, hunting pigeons and other birds from their man-made vantage points. In August of 1999, the peregrine was removed from the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Bird-lovers everywhere rejoice in the return of the peregrine.
The magnificent gyrfalcon is the largest and most powerful of the swift-flying falcon group. Alternate spellings are gerfalcon and jerfalcon(all three spellings are pronounced the same way - JER-fal-ken). The name means "spear falcon," and comes either from the bird’s arrowing flight or from the lance-shaped markings on its feathers. In the days of classical falconry, the gyr was the most highly prized of all the falcons, allotted only to royalty. Most valuable was a white gyr, a truly kingly possession. Gyrfalcons occur in a wide range of colors and patterns, from the striking white bird with its dark markings emphasized by a background of almost pure white, through many different shades of gray, to an almost completely black bird. In the past the differently colored gyrs were thought to be distinct subspecies, and even recent books refer to different "color phases." However, the various plumage types cannot be neatly divided - an almost infinite number of colors and patterns occurs. Nor are the different colors necessarily found in separate regions. In northern Quebec, for example, white, gray, and black birds all use the same breeding area.
The gyrfalcon is a species of the bleak arctic and subarctic in the Old World as well as in the New World. In autumn and winter, after breeding chores are completed, some individuals move southward into temperate regions, but usually the bird does not venture south of the Great Lakes. To see this beautiful and dramatic bird in the East, therefore, is a rare treat. When the gyr does move southward it is reacting to a food shortage in its tundra home. For preference, this falcon preys on other birds. In coastal areas it will hunt seabirds such as ducks and geese, but the gyrfalcon’s staple prey is the ptarmigan, a northern grouse, supplemented with lemmings and arctic hares. These three species are subject to cyclical population buildups and crashes, and when prey becomes scarce the gyr, like the snowy owl and the great gray owl, drifts south. When the gyrfalcon is spotted in temperate areas it is usually in flat, treeless places like beaches and fields that resemble its tundra home.
Female falcons are considerably larger than the tiercels or males. Females may weigh more than four pounds; males average 35% less, and weigh between two and three pounds. While the peregrine is usually considered the fastest falcon, achieving speeds of over 100 MPH in the rocketing dive known as a stoop, the gyrfalcon may be faster in horizontal flight. It is a determined, tenacious pursuer of game, typically capturing its quarry not in the blinding speed of the stoops but by wearing it out in a long-range chase. When it strikes, using its strong and heavy feet, its immense power becomes apparent. Its great curving beak is equipped with a falcon trademark - a toothlike structure designed to snap the spine of captured prey.
The gyrfalcon’s remote northern home has helped to shield it from man-made threats such as habitat destruction. Unlike the peregrine, which disappeared from the East as a breeding bird in the !960s because of DDT poisoning, the gyrfalcon has not been affected by chemical toxins. Although birds are occasionally shot or meet with accidents when they move into southern regions, studies show that the gyrfalcon’s population is stable.
The red-tailed hawk is a high-profile bird. The species is one of North America’s most widely distributed hawks, as well as one of its largest. Females may weigh in at over 3 pounds; the smaller males weigh approximately 2½ pounds. Wingspan is around 4 feet. The wide wingspread is obvious when the bird is in the air, for contributing to the red-tail’s visibility is the fact that this is a hawk of open country, in contrast to secretive forest-loving species like the Cooper’s hawk and the goshawk. The red-tail is a soaring bird, and may remain aloft for hours at a stretch, riding the thermals or upwelling currents of warm air that rise from the ground. Some soaring seems to be done simply for the fun of it. However, soaring also serves two useful purposes. One is that it is energy-efficient - a great deal of sky can be covered with a minimum of effort. So soaring is an ideal way to migrate, and some red-tails, particularly the young birds, do migrate as cold weather approaches. Others choose to remain close to their nesting territory throughout the year, which makes them easy to observe during the winter months. When the red-tail is soaring, its trademark chestnut-red tail, typically spread like a wide, rounded fan, can be seen to advantage, especially when the bird veers and the tail glints in the sunlight. However, only mature birds over one year old wear the red tail. Immature hawks, birds of the year, sport a dark gray tail, marked with several darker bands.
Soaring also helps the red-tail to hunt, for it gives the hawk a bird’s-eye view of the ground and the movement of prey. The red-tail is an unfussy feeder, one reason for its wide distribution, and it will take anything from reptiles and small birds to something as large as a skunk. Typical prey is a small rodent such as a mouse or vole. When it wishes to get closer to the action, the red-tail descends from the sky to employ another favorite means of spotting its prey - still-hunting. This technique expends, if anything, even less energy than soaring, and its function is the same: it gives the red-tail an overview of its surroundings. A lookout tree offering an unobstructed view is selected, and this is probably why red-tails are seldom seen perched in evergreens - the needles are too dense to allow the hawk to see unimpeded. Once perched, the red-tail scans the ground intently for the movement of prey. It has keen eyesight to help it in its search - it’s estimated that the hawk can see detail as well as we can when using 8x binoculars. Favorite hunting perches, which are often used over and over, are apt to be along the sides of roads. From its vantage point the hawk can monitor rodent activity on the highway verges, as well as watch for road kills, since it doesn’t disdain carrion. Seen perched, the red-tail gives the impression of being a mostly white bird, with a dark belly-band of streaked feathers set off against the pale front.
The red-tail’s penchant for haunting roadsides sometimes leads to a collision with a car, and habitat destruction threatens some individuals. In general, however, this highly adaptable species is doing very well.
For more information on the center's resident red-tailed hawks, go to Resident Bird Bios.