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Red-tailed hawks come from far and wide

They decorate the utility poles of the valley, waiting patiently for some mouse or ground squirrel to venture a bit too far from cover. These ornaments with the bright-orange tails are found on seemingly every 10th utility pole or treetop and never appear to move.

I'm not convinced red-tailed hawks really do hunt. How often do you ever see one attempt a kill? A hawk I pass on some errand is usually on the same perch when I return much later. The next day, it is perched three poles down. It's almost as if someone is responsible for relocating the birds each night just to give the valley a fresh look.

However, move they do. Our local birds may only move about in their half- to one-square-mile home range. Eighteen pairs nest along Bear Creek from the Ashland airport to the mouth where it enters the Rogue River, with others scattered around the valley. These birds never go on vacation. They can be seen on sunny days getting cozy or fiddling with sticks in the nest beginning about the first of December.

Many others have come great distances to spend the winter on our utility poles. Some come from Eastern Oregon. In sage country their most important prey, the Belding's ground squirrel, hibernates. Staying the winter is not an option unless the territory also has abundant rabbits and mice. Other hawks come from farther north, including Washington, Montana, British Columbia and Alberta.

How can you tell the vagabonds from the homeowners? Truth is, you usually can't. However, red-tailed hawks show considerable variation in plumage. There are light-phase birds and dark-phase birds and just a few in between. Light-phase birds have a light belly with a belt of dark feathers that varies in extent among individuals. Dark-phase birds are largely brown beneath. Light-phase and dark-phase birds never change; they hatch that way. All adults have the standard reddish tail.

Dark-phase birds are more common east of the Cascades. So a dark-phase bird is more likely to have come some distance to winter here. Still, a few of our resident birds are dark-phase. The female that nested for years along Interstate 5 just south of the Phoenix exit was a dark-phase bird.

This year we have a rare visitor from even further north that reminds us just how far some of our winter hawks travel. A Harlan's hawk has chosen the orchards along Coleman Creek Road for its winter home. The Harlan's hawk is really a red-tailed hawk, but it is distinctive enough to have earned its own name. Years ago it was considered a separate species. It is very dark, and the tail is white with a dusky tip. If you look closely you can still see a trace of the red worn proudly by its more southerly relatives. Harlan's hawks breed in the Yukon and Alaska, and most winter in places like Texas and Kansas.

As you travel the roads this holiday season, enjoy the decorations and consider the wide range of summer homes to which they'll disperse in February and March.

Stewart Janes is a biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.