Red-tailed Hawk’s Balancing Act

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Have you ever tried to stand on just one foot for an extended period?  Say, 8-10 minutes?  I’ll bet you can’t do it.  Most people have difficulty standing on one foot for more than a few seconds.

Hawks and other raptors do it all the time.  Indeed, some of these birds seem to prefer to perch on one foot.  They have no issue with stability.  They appear to be rock steady.

This Red-tailed Hawk, which I photographed a few days ago, is demonstrating that ability.  Not only is it perching comfortably on one foot but it is doing so on the tiny tip of a dead branch, a perch that affords the bird with a minimum of surface area.

How do these birds do it?  How can they balance effortlessly on one foot when we humans struggle after attempting to do the same thing for more than just a few seconds?

Partly, it is because these birds are extremely lightweight.  An adult Red Tail weighs only about two and one-half pounds.  Its legs and feet are extremely strong in proportion to its body weight.  It is able to grip its perch with great force and it has very little mass to affect its stability.  Look very closely at these images and you’ll see just how strong is this hawk’s foot:  one of its talons appears to have penetrated completely through the dead wood of the snag on which the hawk is perched.

I suspect that there’s another reason that explains why the hawk can perch so comfortably on one foot for an extended period and that lies in how its brain is organized.  All birds, but especially raptors, have supreme coordination and balance.  They must have this incredible innate coordination in order to fly as acrobatically as they do. A hawk maneuvering in the air makes an unimaginable number of tiny adjustments in order to stabilize and direct its flight.  The bird’s supreme coordination includes the ability to adjust individually the feathers at the tips of its wings in order to maximize its aerial performance.  So, for a hawk, a little thing like balancing on one leg is a piece of cake.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 f4.5-5,6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

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