As much as I enjoy watching the birds in the woods and around my backyard, I know I could be much better at it if it weren’t for a few challenges that I can’t do anything about.
My aging eyes and ears don’t see and hear like they used to, and in reality, they were not real good for bird-watching to begin with.
Due to a disadvantage called Daltonism or deuteranopia, I don’t see colors well. I’m especially challenged by browns, greens and reds. For bird identification, red and browns are often important colors, and finding the feathered fliers among green leaves can be a real trick.
My bird books also offer clues to telling certain birds apart by the songs they sing and the sounds they make. Those phonetic spellings almost never make any sense to me, and my tone deafness will not allow me to distinguish even simple song differences.
When a couple of hawks were having quite a squabble in the woods just behind our house, I wanted to make sure I knew exactly who was responsible for the ruckus. I guessed red-tailed hawk right away, but based on almost everything I could see and hear, I thought there was a chance they could have been red-shouldered hawks.
Red-tailed hawks are more common in Missouri, so I had the percentages in my favor. Their sizes are different, but not really something that can be judged at a distance or without a tape measure. An average red-tailed hawk is 22 inches from tail tip to beak, but the red-shouldered hawk’s average length is 19 inches.
Both species prefer a forested habitat with cleared areas for hunting. They eat rabbits, squirrels, snakes, mice and other small animals. Actually, they will eat anything they can catch, including birds, frogs and insects.
The high-pitched screech they make is similar but distinct enough, according to Peterson’s Field Guide. The red-tailed hawk will squeal “keeer-r-r,” while the red-shouldered hawk is a distinct two-syllable scream “kee-yer.” That sound is frequently compared to the noise made by blue jays.
In flight, the underside of the red-shouldered hawk is usually darker, but immature red-tailed hawks can be harder to distinguish because of their similar size and color. That fact required extra consideration, because I believed the commotion in the woods may have been the parents convincing their young to venture away.
Earlier this spring I began watching a pair of hawks frequently in a tall tree in the woods. I could never spot a nest, but I was sure that was the goal. The male and female build the nest together, and both incubate the eggs for more than a month. Another 45 days will pass before the fledglings begin leaving the nest, so the timing made my theory a possibility.
The mated pair will return to the area next spring to start the cycle again. The young birds will have to find new hunting and home-building territories to call their own.
Missouri has several other raptors, but their sizes or habitat make them distinct from the first two. Broad-winged hawks are the smallest of the bueto family, but they are most likely to be seen in the state during migrations in April and September. Rough-legged hawks are similar in size to the red-tailed hawk, but they nest in the northern arctic and are seen here in the winter.
Accipiters such as the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawks are smaller than red-shouldered hawks, and they have longer tails. They are much faster fliers, and because of that they are more likely to include more birds in their diets.
Missouri also is home to several falcons, including tiny (by comparison) American kestrels, which are less than 12 inches in total length and are best identified by their habit of hovering over grassy areas before dive-bombing their prey.
The peregrine falcon is similar in size to our common hawks, and its claim to fame is as the fastest living animal. They can dive at speeds up to 200 miles per hour in pursuit of birds. Nearly extinct in the state at one time, they are now making a strong comeback with assists from nesting programs high on the ledges of city buildings that mimic the cliffs the birds naturally call home.
They are welcomed in the cities because of their ability to catch and kill pigeons.
I never definitively identified those big birds in our back woods, but they certainly provided an entertaining evening. They screeched and challenged each other until eventually they went their separate ways.
John J. Winkelman is community relations manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for Outdoor Guide Magazine, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.