By Jeff Berti
Since most birds fly south for the winter, you may be wondering why there’s a hawk sitting on many of the local fence posts and power line poles. The fact is, many hawks (and other “birds of prey”) also fly south. However, birds that begin their migrations in the northern U.S. and Canada often discover that Missouri is far enough south to suit their needs.
The influx of these migrating raptors certainly makes them more visible in the winter. When you add the migrants to the ones that live here year-round, it creates a tremendous population of hawks.
Compared to the warmer months, the winter population of hawks is much higher in Missouri. A long spell of very severe weather can “push” many migratory hawks farther south, but they are content to stay here most of the winter.
Red-tailed hawks are the most common birds of prey in Missouri (year-round). “Red-tails” are distinguished by their broad wings, large size and distinctive fan-shaped tails. Birds which are less than two-years-old do not exhibit the familiar rusty-red tail, so these “juvenile” birds are harder to identify.
Other key characteristics include vivid white breast feathers, which are underscored by a dark band at the base of the chest. Red-tails are commonly observed in “open” country and their prey includes rabbits, mice and rats.
Another common bird of prey in Missouri is even more distinctive. At just eight inches tall, the American kestrel (also known as the sparrow hawk) is North America’s smallest raptor The slender, pointed wings identify this bird as a falcon. Male kestrels have striking colors of blue-grey and rust, which contrast with patches of white.
Kestrels are so small that many Missourians fail to recognize them as birds of prey. They’re commonly seen perched along roads and are easily identified by their habit of “hovering” for prey. By fluttering their wings, these birds can maintain their position in the air (like a helicopter), in an effort to locate prey. Mice comprise much of the diet, along with large insects (during the warmer months).
Another species commonly seen during Missouri winters is the northern harrier (also known as the marsh hawk). These birds are smaller than red-tail hawks, with slender bodies that resemble sea gulls.
Northern harriers share a habit with the owls; they locate their prey by “sound”, rather than “sight.” They’re often seen swooping low over the ground, so the distinctive white patch (at the base of the tail) is very easy to spot. Male harriers are slate grey, while the females and juveniles are brownish. And like the red-tail hawk, harriers are more apt to be found in open areas.
In contrast, the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are creatures of the forest. These medium sized hawks have short wings and long tails, which allow quick maneuvers among the trees.
These two species are very difficult to tell apart. However, Cooper’s hawks tend to be larger, with their tails rounded at the end (rather than “square”). Both species are sometimes referred to as “blue backs” because of their slate-grey color. Their small size and the “crossbars” on the tails distinguish these from the other hawks commonly seen in Missouri.
Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks prey primarily on smaller birds. In fact, backyard bird feeders are virtual “smorgasbords” for these graceful raptors. Every year, MDC receives complaints from homeowners, who are upset after watching a hawk dart in to catch a wintering songbird.
In reality, predatory behavior by hawks is just a natural part of the cycle of life. Yes, hawks have to eat too, and they perform a valuable service by “culling” animals that are poorly equipped to survive (because of age, injury, poor nutrition, etc.).
Hawks represent the “day shift,” while the nocturnal owls don’t “clock in” until just before dark. It’s interesting how these two groups of similar predators (with similar diets) are able to coexist.
In summary, now is an excellent time to learn about the hawks that winter here in Missouri. Birds are currently sharing the local landscape with our “resident” populations, so there’s no better time to observe these fascinating predators!
By Jeff Berti