The first time we saw them in action, we could not believe how high they were flying, even as they rode thermal currents up to and above the clouds. “They” were a pair of red-tailed hawks, circling higher and higher, without once flapping their wings and it was magnificent. And it was dangerous, since they were soaring into the path of jets on final approach to John Wayne Airport in Orange County.
Hawks, and sometimes turkey vultures, I was told by an ornithologist at California State University, Northridge, frequent the skies above Los Angeles, presumably to prey on small animals below. That could include your cat, should he make the mistake of not paying attention. Our unofficial pets, as I have mentioned, would include the resident geckos who appear every so often, but to date have been effectively coy.
Feeding habits notwithstanding, the birds are amazing, and as I discovered, worth some research. Technically, they are known as buteo jamaicensis, with the females weighing in at four pounds, while the males are a pound lighter. That’s an example of sexual dimorphism, which means being contrary to many species in nature with regard to size — not, as you might have assumed, weird when it came to fornication preferences. Fully grown, they can exhibit a wingspan of up to four and one-half feet, so even as they approach low clouds they are often visible, searching for updrafts.
On average, the red-tailed hawk cruises along at 30 to 40 mph, but when they go into a power dive they can hit 120 mph.
The red-tailed hawk can very definitely be trained by a skilled falconer (so called if he trains one of several types of birds of prey). In a documentary that was shown several months ago, a falconer attached a tiny video camera to the back of a hawk and made recordings of the bird in action. It was stunning to watch the bird line up his prey, roll over into a dive and snatch it in mid-air.
Our aviators usually seem to be on the way home, somewhere in the mountains that surround much of the city. There have been times when they are only a few hundred feet up, flapping their wings furiously as they try to elude smaller birds who they’ve annoyed; I’m guessing that a nest has been raided and the hawks have once again run up against a mom’s fury. But size does count, along with the ability and courage to fly very, very high, so the getaway is always successful.
And so we watch, as the hawks create great circles in the sky with wings completely still, only turning now and then to move over to another thermal. Last weekend, one of a pair reached what I would assume was about three thousand feet, leveled out and then sped to the north and disappeared into a cloud. His companion continued upward, finally reaching a still higher cloud, where we could no longer see him.
At that point a commercial airliner broke from another series of clouds and cruised toward the airport at a thousand feet below the still soaring hawk!
The drama and conclusion of the moment was obvious: A machine that required thousands of working parts with skilled pilots at the controls and assistance from the distant airport could only do what the hawk did with effortless grace. Hard to know, but the hawk may have carried a small smile as he looked downward.