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Naturalist’s Notebook: Young Red-tailed Hawks

By John Schmitt
Naturalist's Notebook: Red-tailed Hawks

21 August 2009
Sherman Pass Road
Tulare County, California

Late this morning I watched a pair of recently fledged, high-spirited young Red-tailed Hawks engage in a game of “keep-away.” At first I saw only a single young hawk soaring over burned-over forest, juggling a thick stick in its talons. Sometimes it would stall, tumble, and spin earthward, all the while toying with the stick in its talons.

The young hawk then soared higher with its stick, wheeling closer to a long strip of surviving conifer forest, out of which another young red-tail suddenly bolted and commenced a swift and determined pursuit of its stick-carrying sibling. The hawk with the stick was equally determined to keep its toy, and led its sibling in a long chase, racing and weaving skillfully between the trees. The chasing hawk executed several impressive sprinting dives, attempting to overtake its sibling and seize the coveted stick. It came very close to succeeding several times, but the stick-packing young hawk adroitly avoided each attempt with exciting split-second maneuvers. The final leg of the wild chase entered the thick, shaggy forest, where the racing hawks flickered in and out of view until they both popped out of the trees at the bottom end. The lead hawk still held onto its precious stick, while its sibling abruptly broke off the pursuit.

Both young hawks then soared up over me, one of them still carrying the contested stick. They were joined by one of their parents—a dark, handsome rufous morph. At some point while I was admiring the dark adult, the young hawk discarded its wooden toy. I watched for several minutes longer as the three hawks traced lazy circles in the late summer sky, high above the steeply tilted mountains, then reluctantly began my long, relentlessly curving drive home.

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