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Albuquerque, NM 87184
Phone: 505 828-9455
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E-Mail: gail@hawksaloft.org

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Hawks Aloft Blog

Blog Topic: Hawk Talk: Ask an Expert

Return of the Swainson’s Hawks

Four Swainson's Hawks soaring.

Four Swainson’s Hawks soaring

We get the greatest e-mails!  I just love the excitement and enthusiasm among those of you who are dedicated raptorphiles, watching and recording them as you go about your daily lives.  They’re BAAAAACK!  We got this great message from Georgia Santa-Maria this past weekend.

More Swainies Soaring

Up to 24 hawks were observed at one time soaring over Georgia’s property in Belen, NM.

Dear Hawks Aloft:

I took these pictures in my pasture, East of Belen, this morning– I’ve never seen a “flock” of hawks before, ever. There were up to 2 dozen birds at one point–too many to count. The most I could get in one frame was 9–but they were all over the sky overhead, and did not seem to be shy, or wary of us, (2 humans,) or my dogs, at all. I’m wondering if they were red-tails–they didn’t look like others I’ve seen before, but I’m curious. Also, is this behavior unusual? We saw one pair mate in a treetop nearby, and listened to their distinct calls, the normal “screee” sound, which was quieter than a lot of times, and a kind of warbling call that might have related to the mating, as it was audible just before, and when other birds landed in the trees briefly. In any case–I’m very excited and curious, and wanted to pass on this information to your people who may be doing research on these birds–Getting to see this was really thrilling!!

Georgia Santa Maria


One Swainie - more clear

Classic profile of a soaring Swainson’s Hawk. It’s wings are held in a slight upward V; the flight feathers are dark with a uniformly light-colored leading edge. The presence of a complete bib identifies this as an adult.

Thanks, Georgia, for sharing these images with us!  The birds you observed are Swainson’s Hawks, returning from their wintering grounds in Argentina.  They are the last of the large buteo hawks to arrive on their nesting grounds, largely due to their long migration, over 7,000 miles each way.  Their semi-annual journey takes up to two months each way!  It is the longest migration of all buteo species.

Swainies soaring

Swainson’s Hawks travel in groups, called kettles. Kettles of up to several thousand individuals have been recorded.

Only Swainson’s Hawks and Broad-winged Hawks routinely migrate in large flocks, called kettles.  By traveling in a group, individuals take advantage of thermals by watching others rise on the warming air currents.  It is an efficient way to travel long distances — rise in a thermal until it tops out at very high elevations; then soar without flapping until reaching the next thermal, trending slightly downward, until seeing the hawks ahead reach the next thermal.

Two Swainies

Two Swainson’s soar together above Belen, NM.

On their nesting grounds in western North America, Swainson’s Hawk (or Swainies as we call them!), these hawks eat a variety of small mammals, birds, lizards, and snakes in the spring.  However, during the summer months, when the grasshoppers bloom, they prey-switch to a diet that is almost exclusively grasshoppers.  On the grasslands of Argentina where they winter, they are called Locust Hawks!

A very cool sighting!  Thanks Georgia!

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Who Is This Bird?

One of the most popular features on our website is called Hawk Talk – Ask an Expert.   Our staff of scientists and educators answer questions about birds from people all over the world.  It is one of our favorite things to do.  Here’s a recent question.

Dear Hawks Aloft,

I am hopeful you will be able to help me identify this bird.  I live in a rural Sierra Nevada Foothills area in Northern California at about 3000 foot elevation.  Last weekend I was doing some work out on our property when out of the corner of my eye I saw a large bird fly up into the trees from the ground. When I walked over to the area it flew from, I could see I had spooked it off a squirrel it was feeding on. Intrigued to see the bird up close, I retrieved my Go Pro sports camera and set it up close to the dead squirrel,  set it on time lapse (one photo every 5 seconds). In doing so I was able to capture the images you see below.  I am unsure as to what this bird is, Red Tailed Hawk? Golden Eagle? or other?  Can you help me identify it?

Thank you in advance!

Mark Winger
Grass Valley, CA

Hi Mark,

The bird is an adult Red-tailed Hawk.  The difficulty in your identification may have been caused by the relatively strong banding on the  tail.   However, you can still see the red that characterizes the adults of this species.  It is most likely the Calurus subspecies, or Western Red-tail.  They have darker plumage than some of the other subspecies.  Other diagnostic field marks include the dark patch on the leading edge of the wing, called a “patagial mark” and the dark head.  The second image shows light colored feathers on the back of the bird.  When viewed directly, these form a pale “V” shape, called a “scapular V”.   Another diagnostic field mark for Red-tailed Hawk is a dark belly band.  However, this is highly variable among the many subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, ranging from pronounced to almost non-existent.   Very nice images!  Thank you for sharing.   Might we have permission to use them on our website to help others identify mystery hawks that they encounter?  We would, of course, give you full credit.

Gail Garber
Executive Director

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Hawk Talk: Ask an Expert – Do Hawks Bury Their Prey?

I live in San Jose, CA. Our subdivision is about 7 years old and is in a fairly rural area. We are surrounded by a lot of open area. We have seen deer, elk, turkeys, coyotes, fox. We also have a lot of pigeons as well as hawks and owls. Recently, as I returned home late one afternoon, a hawk flew out from behind my rose bushes with something hanging from it’s feet. I watched it land on a neighbors fence and I approached it for a closer look. It dropped it’s prey and flew off allowing me to see that if was a pigeon. It was missing one wing and it’s head was gone. The next morning the pigeon was gone. Today, while working in my back yard, I noticed some feathers sticking up out of the ground where I had recently removed a small shrub that had been ruined by gophers. I used a shovel to un-earth whatever it was and discovered that it was in fact a pigeon that was missing it’s head and one wing. I have to ask the obvious question even though it sounds ridiculous to me. Will a hawk bury it’s prey? Or is it more likely that a hawk killed the pigeon, left it for something else to bury in my yard? Both seem unlikely to me as our yard is well fenced. Any ideas?

Osprey with fish © Doug Brown
No reproduction of any kind without written permission.

Raptors almost always consume the head of a prey animal first, so my guess is that either a hawk or an owl was the culprit. The most common urban nesting raptor is the Cooper’s Hawk, although in California, you also have a large population of Red-shouldered Hawks. Both of these species prey upon birds and Rock Pigeons are one of their primary prey items. It is possible that the hawk was disturbed while eating its meal and abandoned it, or that it stashed the food so it could later recover it. Some raptors routinely stash food while others do not. A fence makes little difference to a raptor.

As one who feed songbirds in my back yard, the Cooper’s Hawk is a regular visitor, hoping to cash in on an unwary House Finch or House Sparrow, since I don’t have many pigeons here. Watching the hawk randomly run into a shrub or beneath vegetation in an attempt to flush out a songbird is thrilling to watch. Usually, the songbird gets away as raptors capture food only in about 2 of every 10 attempts.

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Hawk Talk: Ask an Expert – Raptors Foraging on Corn?

I watched a hawk within 30 feet of me forage on corn for thirty minutes. There is no question in my mind that I saw this hawk foraging on the corn. As far as I have ever known, hawks are strictly meat eaters. It is appreciable that the hawk was doing its best to survive; however, the temp was 52 degrees and I saw many squirrels, mice or moles, turkeys and numerous song birds, all of which seemed readily available. Has this hawk been imprinted in a fashion? The hawk was not selecting pebbles/gravel to assist in digestion as I witnessed corn falling from its beak as it cracked it and foraged on its remnants. Are you aware of similar circumstances? Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

This sighting was on the December 9, 2011. The temp was 52 degrees at 0810 a.m. and I was approximately 100 miles from the Atlantic Coast in North Carolina. Thank you in advance for your thoughts.

Juvenile raptors, particularly Northern Harriers, will ‘play’ with corn cob pieces in fields after the harvest. They are not eating the corn but will harry the field then drop down as if capturing a meadow vole, and go through behavior motor sequence of taloning, dispatching and biting. They will fly off with the piece, sometimes drop it and ‘recapture’ it. They seem to enjoy this behavior which is most common in the fall of the year. They select cobs that are broken in pieces about the size of a meadow vole.

This harrying-capture-kill motor sequence is, perhaps, part of a developmental phase as they perfect their hunting style or technique. Since animals learn adaptive strategies and also learn from one another, it is possible that they do this for fun at times when the prey base is sufficient and they can afford the metabolic cost….the act of practicing hunting skills outweighs the metabolic cost. It can easily look like the hawks are hunting and eating corn! We also have observed juvenile Cooper’s Hawk catching, killing, and shredding pine cones as they hone their hunting prowess.

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