Young Red-tailed Hawks, A Question Of Identification

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Red-tailed Hawks come in a wide assortment of colors and color patterns.  Their colors are limited to shades of brown, reddish brown, black and white, but that still allows for an amazing degree of variation among individual birds.  These birds tend to sport colors and patterns depending on what region of the country they come from, but there are variations within regions as well.  Nearly all adult Red Tails have red tails, but there are some exceptions to this general rule.  To make matters more interesting, young Red Tails often display quite different color patterns than do adult birds.

Here are a couple of youngsters that I photographed in the last week or so.  The first bird looks to be a young “southwestern” Red Tail. I’d guess that it is about a year old.

It is already showing the largely white breast of a Red Tail born in this part of the country.  As an adult this bird will have a very pale breast but will likely have a belly band of darker feathers.  Its outer wings and back will be brown as will its head and the area just below its throat.  The overwhelming majority of Red-tailed Hawks that I see as I make my drives are southwestern birds.

Now, here’s another yearling bird of a different color.  Although its plumage is quite different from that sported by the first bird, it too, is a Red Tail.

The likelihood is high that this bird will mature into an individual displaying all rufous or nearly all rufous plumage.  To the casual observer, it will appear to be brick red in color.  Is it a local bird?  I don’t know, but perhaps not.  Rufous Red Tails are pretty uncommon in these parts during the warm months.  They tend to show up in relatively small numbers during the winter migration when the local population of southwestern hawks is augmented by visitors from other parts of the western United States.

But, color differences aside, this hawk is just as much a Red Tail as is the first bird.  There is at least one genetic analysis of Red Tails of different colors and patterns and they turn out to be very similar genetically under their feathers.  What we may think of as different races or subspecies of these birds may be meaningless to them, inasmuch as the different color variations can, and more than occasionally do, interbreed.

Now, here’s one final image of the first bird.  I’ve included it because I think it’s kind of nifty but also because it shows two important identifying characteristics.  First, notice the dark bars at the leading edges of the hawk’s wings.  These bars distinguish Red Tails from other buteos.  If you see a hawk in flight with these dark wing bars, they tell you that it’s a Red Tail.  Second, notice that this bird doesn’t have a red tail. Juvenile and immature Red Tails lack this characteristic.  The tail turns red with successive plumage molts.  Judging from the condition of this bird’s tail feathers it isn’t far from molting.  It will look more and more like an adult bird with each molt.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, all images at f8.  The first image at 1/1000, the second at 1/1600, the final image at 1/500.


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