Red-tail creates quite the fuss

Published 12:08 am Saturday, March 2, 2013

One bright but cool sunny afternoon, I opened my back door to take out the garbage. As soon as I put one foot on the back step, I heard a commotion. There was at least one unhappy bird out there somewhere. It just kept calling, definitely emitting a distress call. Where was it? I looked around, trying to find it in the bushes and trees along the fence line. I saw nothing. Its call reminded me of the mockingbird I had seen in some bushes at church, screeching at everybody who walked by. Evidently, we humans must have been too close to its nest.

I was the only human in my back yard but I doubted the calls were directed at me. I dumped my trash in the garbage container and pushed it to the curb out front. Still hearing the distress signals upon my return, I took a sweeping look at some bare-limbed trees in the back yard. Not only did I spot the source of the anguished calls, but the reason for them. A hawk sat perched on a limb high in a tree while a smaller squawking bird winged its way back and forth above the hawk and the limb above it. Was its nest under construction near-by? Wasn’t February too early for hatching nestlings? I couldn’t answer those questions. I just stared in fascination at the big bird perched majestically on the tree limb. It appeared oblivious to the smaller one’s taunting.

I thought perhaps when I slammed the back door the hawk would fly. It did not. I grabbed my binoculars, opened the screen door and steadied myself to focus on the larger bird with a head-on view. This bird had a brown head, dark eyes, and strips of brown sprinkled on a light colored breast. Back inside, I reached for the bird book kept on the back porch for years. It was nowhere in sight. My guess was this fascinating visitor perched high on that bare limb was a red-tailed hawk, a common sight in this part of Alabama. You can usually spot them on power lines and tree tops while traveling highways and the Interstate.

This was my first look at one through binoculars. I then confirmed it was a red-tailed hawk through an Internet search. My visitor that day was probably a young one, since the red tail was not evident. Hawks sit on high perches observing the ground below, and then swiftly swoop down to grasp their prey with powerful talons applying 200 pounds of pressure in their grasp. I learned that if you see one on a perch with a bulge high on its chest, it is not in an observation mode. It is resting and digesting after having killed and eaten something that causes the bulge in its esophagus.

No wonder the small bird raised such a fuss. That red-tailed hawk certainly looked threatening, bulge on its chest or not.