Hawks have no way to know what year it is. Like all other animals, their patterns are largely influenced by cycles. Hot and cold, spring and autumn, summer and winter. Sometimes we think of ourselves as unique on this planet by being the only ones in on the joke: we’re the only ones going forward, while everything else goes in a circle. But animals mark things too, consciously or not. Animals change, adapt, progress through the days, through the seasons, through the years. Birds of prey have markings that change as a rite of passage, as surely as we have the dividing lines between adolescence and adulthood. Red-tailed hawks are among the easiest raptors to spot. They are big, impressive, and conspicuous. They enjoy perching on highway lights and telephone poles, anything that gives them a vantage point from which to hunt. The next time you see a red-tailed hawk, think of it like a person. Look for the little signs that show how old it is. Look for the clues which remind us that, hey, these birds are going forward too. They’re living, enduring, experiencing, changing, the same as we are. They’re still living in the circle of seasons, but going forward all the while.
For a red-tailed hawk, think of childhood as time spent in the nest. Hatchling hawks are covered in “down,” fluffy feathers that help keep them insulated. They’re small and they’re vulnerable. They need their parents, just like we do. Eventually, nestlings turn into “branchers.” Branchers are like kids going off to school; leaving the nest, they boldly set up shop on nearby tree limbs, still within hopping distance of home, but out enough to get those first glimpses of the real world, scary though it may be. Then comes long, hard, adolescence. They learn to fly, and off they go. Hunt or die. An adolescent hawk is equipped in such a way as to reflect its novice status. For these younger red-tailed hawks, their tails are longer now than they are as adults. Kids need more help getting the mechanics of flying down, and that extra surface area is a big assist. Their coloration is different also. An adolescent red-tailed hawk generally has a white chest with a dark “belly band” over its midsection. Its eyes are bright in color, perhaps a fitting symbol of youth’s naivety. Its namesake tail, at this point, is a dull brown with black stripes. Think of this bird like the kid going off to college, to learn, for better or for worse, the nuances of life, good and bad. Except in mother nature’s classroom, a failing grade means death.
Some raptors, red-tailed hawks included, gain unique colorations once they reach a certain age in life. After a year of life, assuming they are still alive, our little students lose their belly band and dull tail. They drop out those feathers and molt new ones in their place, including their brick-red, namesake tail feathers. At a glance, a red-tail’s feathers, most notably the color of its tail and the presence or absence of a belly band, can tell you where that bird is on the journey of life.
They grow older; they grow wiser. They take a mate. They become parents caring for their own downy-covered young. They watch over their own brood of branchers. They grow older. Their eyes become darker, and though you likely won’t see it from a distance, a raptor’s eyes can tell you worlds about them. Darker eyes mean an older bird. A survivor.
When you replace your calendar, when you mark off one more year, one more step on this long journey that we’re all taking, look out your window. Look at the birds in your yard. Think of them, not as bystanders, but as fellow travelers. Forget about migration, and think about the single life’s path they’re each following on. Think about every experience, every moment, every day and year of their life. Think about them as you think about yourself.
Think about the inevitable journey going forward, and of all the creatures going with you.