Bird of the Week: Red Tailed Hawk

Species: Red-tailed Hawk, or Buteo jamaicensis

Family: Accipitridae (Hawks, Eagles, and Kites)

Star sign: Leo

Rating: 14/10

Ideal Date: You know the finale of Singin’ in the Rain, where Lina Lamont is lip synching to Kathy Selden, who’s singing live behind the stage curtain, and they pull up the curtain and everyone realizes that Kathy Selden was the real talented singer all along, and then she gets to make out with Gene Kelly? Yeah, basically imagine that but with birds. 2

You may think there’s nothing special about the Red-tailed Hawk. Sure, they’re beautiful, majestic raptors that can often be seen soaring high above campus on the north wind, their feathers spread open, their brilliant russet-red tails glistening in the sunlight. But they’re so passé. So pedestrian. In this country, they’re inescapable to even the most bird-ignorant schmuck around, let alone any experienced birder; there is a tangible sort of disappointment that comes with thinking you might have spotted an exciting new hawk friend, only to realize that it is just a particularly drab Red-tailed Hawk. But this reputation is wholly unearned, and is disrespectful not only to the glorious soaring powers of this magnificent beast, but also to his most important, unique, and special skill: his voice. 

Because the thing is, you know his voice. You’ve heard it, whispering on the wind. But more importantly: you’ve heard it whispering quite loudly and audibly on the silver screen! His fierce, piercing, gorgeous call, resounding across the landscape and clear through your Dolby 5.1 Surround Sound System: SCKRAAAAAAAWWWWW!!!!!! In every movie and every tv show ever produced in this nation, whenever a director needs a powerful, booming voice for whatever manner of falcon, hawk, or kite they are trying to depict, they have always turned to one particularly skilled voice actor, and that is of course, our friend the Red-tailed Hawk. The reason is that most raptors… actually have really pathetic, mewling calls!

Most of them sound like they’d be better fit to be the voices of jittery songbirds or 1990s Disney movie ingenues. But not the Red-tailed Hawk. The Red-tailed Hawk has a voice more majestic and powerful and those of every other raptor combined. Like the Morgan Freeman of birds of prey. So naturally, the call of this talented trouper is used by Hollywood sound designers almost without fail to dub over the more pathetic yelps of other raptors, most often the hack fraud Bald Eagle (though I suppose that must be in character for a bird that symbolizes America). But don’t get it twisted! The Red-tailed Hawk is the real talent behind the throne. 

If you want to see one of these powerful performers, you needn’t look far. They are ubiquitous in the United States, easily the most common and frankly, unavoidable raptor in the country. But if you’re having trouble identifying them: Red-tailed hawks are on the larger and stockier side for Hawks, though nowhere near as large as your typical Eagle; while their plumage is subject to some regional variation, they generally have white undersides (under-wings and chests) and dark brown on their heads, backs, and the tops of their wings. They also have piercing yellow eyes. Their tails, as the name implies, are a brilliant red-brown color, serving as an incredibly distinctive identifier if you can spot it. Additionally, they have a unique mottling pattern on their chest, a horizontal band of dark brown spots which runs across their chests. They are very often spotted soaring high in the air, especially above wide-open spaces, and at Reed there’s a good chance that if you look into the clear blue sky you’ll see one soaring over the great lawn or the sports fields, perhaps even being harassed by crows. But even beyond those things, never forget that beautiful, distinctive, iconic call; Hollywood may pretend that their voice belongs to someone else, but never forget the true artist behind that bone-chilling cry, and pray to whatever Gods you believe in that no one ever decides to replace the Red-tailed Hawk with Chris Pratt.

By Sabrina Blasik.

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