SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Flying high above the trees and waterways of the region is the ArkLaTex featured bird of the month, the Red-tailed Hawk. Join KTAL News contributor and avian expert John Dillon as he introduces us to a new feathered friend in the ArkLaTex – one that we see frequently and yet often manage to overlook.
Watch: Our KTAL hunting adventure using hawks to catch prey
Bird of the month, January 2023
Humans love to classify and label everything around us, clinging to order and knowledge and loathing feelings of chaos and ignorance. With this in mind, our abundant Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) does not care about science and provides endless confusion and torment.
Red-tailed Hawks are almost like snowflakes in their variety. Most people who notice birds at all have seen them. And here in Louisiana, in winter, it’s virtually impossible not to see at least one atop a utility pole if you drive just a few miles down any road that traverses open fields.
In summer, Red-tails breed from Southern Mexico to the Arctic Circle and coast to coast. During the breeding season, the sixteen subspecies of the Red-tailed are spread all over this vast area. For clarity, subspecies in birds are geographical groups within a species that tend to vary from other geographical groups within the same species.
Think about how American accents differ from place to place, but then apply that to how one species of bird looks from place to place–some are a little lighter, some darker, some with barred tails, some without barring, but all still the same species.
Red-tail Hawks have, for now anyway, sixteen recognized subspecies, some of which look almost nothing alike.
And just like a Nicholas Cage film, it gets worse.
Some of these subspecies are polymorphic, meaning they come in different colors. For instance, Louisiana birds are often purple, green, or gold during Mardi Gras season. (Okay, that’s a lie.) But in actuality, color morphs in the Red-tailed are usually light (think almost albino) or dark (think almost ninja) and sometimes intermediate, which is a rich, dark reddish brown.
If you count each color morph of all sixteen subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk, you get twenty-two different types scattered across its breeding range. That’s even more variety than all the different kinds of accents and eye colors at your last family reunion, so you can probably see why this bird is so confusing; it has at least twenty-two different ways of appearing.
It’s like an Eddie Murphy movie where he’s playing like a dozen characters, but there’s something oddly familiar about each one.
So, what kind of Red-tails do we have in Louisiana? The answer depends on timing. We have the “eastern” subspecies during the breeding season, B. jamaicensis borealis.
This is what most people think of as the classic look for Red-tails. Adults are all brown above with some white mottling in the wings, a rufous red tail, and mostly white beneath with a “belly band” of darker feathers that can vary from heavily marked to almost non-existent.
Unlike with humans, it’s the non-breeding season when things get complicated for the Red-tailed Hawk.
Red-tailed from as far away as Alaska make their way every winter to Louisiana for boudin and king cake. In any winter in Louisiana, you may find five to six of these subspecies, two of which contain a total of, we think, five color morphs. So, that’s at least eight different-looking types of Red-tails.
Then there’s debate by scientists as to whether or not the “western” subspecies, B. jamaicensis calurus, which has three color morphs, actually occurs in Louisiana. If it does, that would be eleven of the twenty-two versions. Either way, Louisiana is one of the top locations where Red-tailed Hawk researchers do their thing by capturing Red-tails, fitting them out with GPS transmitters, giving them adorable names, and releasing them. That way, we find out where these wintering birds go during breeding, which is how we know which subspecies actually come here.
Just how different looking are these subspecies? Of the two photos of juvenile birds, the pale bird is a “Krider’s,” meaning it’s most likely from Southern Saskatchewan to North Dakota. James Smithers of Lake Charles photographed the bird in Cameron Parish in November 2022. The dark bird is somewhat of a mystery, but the current Red-tailed research suggests it is most likely a dark morph abieticola, meaning it’s from Northwestern Canada. I photographed it in Calcasieu Parish in December 2018, 42 miles as the hawk flies from where James photographed his Krider’s. As you can see, these birds look nothing alike, but they are unquestionably the same species, like Eddie Murphy in Coming to America’s barbershop scene.
Dillon is the former President of the Louisiana Ornithological Society, a regional reviewer for Cornell University’s www.ebird.org, a member of the Louisiana Bird Records Committee, on the Board of Directors of the Briarwood Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve, he’s an English Literature teacher at Minden High School, and he’s and the founder of the Minden High School Nature Club.
Dillon has also been busy writing his way into the hearts and minds of KTALNews.com readers. As one of our most popular guest contributors, he shares his extensive knowledge of recognizing our region’s birds.