November 05, 2013
Red-tailed hawks are top predators. In the words of author Pete Dunne, “...anything readily available and catchable is an odds-on favorite to become prey. Any furred, feathered, or scaled creature that is smaller than a groundhog and turns its back on a meal-minded red-tailed hawk might safely be said to be courting a shortcut toward the cosmic.” Dunne’s poetic description does not exaggerate. These hawks can perch upon a tree branch for hours on end, patiently waiting for an unsuspecting mammal, reptile or bird to consume. Many factors allow the mighty red-tailed hawk to enjoy its position as one of nature’s top predators, including powerful and sharp talons, patience, and incredible vision. For example, red-tailed hawks can see near ultraviolet light that humans cannot; special oil droplets in the receptor cells may increase their ability to see contrasts in colors. It is likely that they can see more details and richer colors than we do - even from the same vantage point.
On my way to work in Yosemite Valley a few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing the beautiful red-tailed hawk pictured below (Buteo jamaicensis) perched upon a tree branch on Southside Drive, watching the road for a potential meal. Looking into those amazing eyes was thrilling and I couldn’t help but wonder how I appeared to him. How did he perceive me with his spectacular vision? What colors did he see in me that I can only imagine? We stared eye to eye for what seemed like a very long time, but may have only been a minute, and then he flew away. It was an encounter I will not soon forget.
You may have been so lucky as to have had a similar experience, even if you didn’t realize it. If you’ve seen a hawk in Yosemite, it’s likely that it was a red-tailed hawk. The fact is, not only are these skilled predators the most common hawk in Yosemite, but in all of North America. Even if you haven’t seen a red-tailed hawk you have probably heard one, especially if you have ever watched old western movies. The use of audio of the red-tailed hawk’s unmistakable screech has long been a common Hollywood practice.
So the next time you’re in Yosemite keep your eyes open for a red-tailed hawk; chances are they’ve had their eyes on you!