Red tails mate for life but in the spring a female may entertain the advances of an unattached male. Courtship involves elaborate aerial acrobatics, complete with daring dives and barrel rolls. Even though he is familiar, her mate must prove his mettle from year to year. This seems an excellent way to keep a partner on his best flight feathers.
A few days later I pedaled my bike down a residential street past Palo Verde trees that shaded the sidewalk and shielded a row of homes. I stopped when I saw a red-tailed hawk hulking in a skimpy tree. She appeared enormous from this close distance. A female red-tailed hawk may have a wingspan of 56 inches. She glared belligerently, daring me to stare another moment. Too soon she launched from her perch and climbed quickly into the blue sky. Thrilled, I rode on. A block down the street perched her mate, only slightly better concealed. His attention was trained on something beyond the block wall in a back yard below the tree. Perhaps a little dog or a cat cowered there. The hawk’s breast feathers were a gorgeous buff color, and a wide dark band stretched across his belly like a sash.
Perching and watching is the classic red tail hunting method, although the predators prefer a tall tree or a rocky outcropping, even a power pole to a spindly street tree. The hunter waits motionless but for the eyes, powerful as binoculars, that scan for the tiniest movement from a rodent, a rabbit, a lizard or a snake. Once prey is sighted the hawk launches an attack. The speed in an all out stoop may reach 120 mph. This handsome hunter was not tolerant of a gawker like me and flew off after his mate.
When I saw the pair again they cruised low along a rocky ridge behind our house. Their pale breast feathers gleamed and broad wings held steady. A slight shift of flight feathers rocketed the two past a stony outcropping and they soared skyward. I grabbed my binoculars as the smaller hawk, the male, clutched a good-sized stick that trailed behind as he flew. Perhaps he’s still working to prove he’s worthy of his demanding mate’s affections. Or perhaps in the hawk world, a forked stick is like a dozen red roses.
Red-tail photo courtesy Terry Stevens