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Red Tailed Hawks and Paragliders

The photo below was taken by Deanne Goodwin at The Dumps. The Dumps is a paraglider area on the coastal high cliffs above the border between Pacifica and Daily City south of SF. The red tailed hawk is known to hang out in paraglider areas. Both are hunters of the same prey: optimal flying.


Red Tail Over The Dumps

The voice of the Red-tailed hawk is unnervingly pleasant. The first time you hear one, or probably two, is way at the unnerving end of the audio time gauntlet. You are walking up a central coast trail minding your step and minding the impressive visual pressure of the Estero Bay touch pad of the Pacific Ocean on the continent.

Red-tailed hawks are almost anywhere in North America. Wide variety of habitats. Mountains, open woods, prairies, plains, and agricultural areas. They like to pole sit on roadsides. Northern populations may migrate in winter, but most will stay in their territories all year.

The King James version of the Bible, in its quaint, medieval way appoints the Book of James to start right out with the subject of the Janused Gemini. Says James of the classic multitasker, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.” But, you ain’t seen instability until you have experienced, not watched, the startling scene entrance of the voice of the red-tailed hawk, a “hold everything” high pitched descending scream, a shrill “kee-eer”. For five seconds it is the only sound in the universe. Gone the roar of the ocean below. Gone the rush of the wind hurrying to get to top of the hill to give lift to paragliders taking off.

Totally unnerving to hiker double minded by scenery and step. And now a change of state sound. That does it. The unwary hiker is looking for footing before its loss even begins.

The freeest sound in the universe has to be an uninhabited planet whirling through its captive orbit. The second freeest sound just has to the shrill perfectly pitched every time shriek of the red tail as it calls to its mate as they “entertain” unwary hikers with the advent of their, well let’s say fifth, breeding season.

They have their act down now. No, really! Down! Down in mission impossible grade dramatic flight displays. They circle up until they are very high. Like an airplane topping out stalls and plummets, then corkscrews up to meet his mate again. “Cool! Cute!” she says. They lock talons and tumble Earthward, their bodies free falling at 100 mph, 5/6 the speed of a human body, about the same velocity, incidentally, that air rushes upward in a pre-cloudburst thunderhead, cumulus cloud. That upward air is great for paraglider lift but, at a certain point, known better to dead paraglider pilots than live ones, the word ‘lift’ is supplanted by ‘cloud suck’.

But, back to the fifth honey sunning red tail couple. Recall they were plummeting, talons locked toward perhaps a field mouse who is destined to give them sustainability later. Just above the ground, they unlock talons. As they land he might say something like, “pretty cool yourself.” She might say something like, “awwwww, Hun, you say that every year.” That bird talk may just be my take. Individual experiences of other birdwatchers may differ.

But, I know this. Red tailed hawks are monogamous, mating for life, and staying in the same neighborhood. Don’t let their moving day fool you. They may have more than one nest. They rotate nests like farmers rotate crop fields.

Unlike humans, red tails don’t do reunions. Well, yeah, dad and mom, but, once mom and dad raise, nourish and teach the kids to fly they pushed them out of the nest and into their own honey sunning, ‘free flight’ experiences.

But, hey! If you thought breeding season was exciting, red tail birdling school is something else. By the time they finish their training, they don’t have to be pushed. Sis and Bro are whispering. She is saying, “Hey, Bro, enough of this school stuff. I have had it up to my beak with the old folks ideas about hunting. I think I’m heading out soon. What about you?”

Bro says, “Yeah, the other day I almost forgot to dive. The old man was upset. I got distracted. I saw this rabbit hopping through the wild oats up at Rocky Butte. I’ve been thinking about checking it out, maybe settling in up there.”

Sis says, “Bro, you are full of bird drop! You cannot see a rabbit on Rocky Butte from here!”

Bro says, “Sis, I was speaking retorically.”

Sis says, “Bro, speaking is not seeing. Retorisal or not. Where are you learning all this truth painting stuff. Have you been listening to those paraglider pilots?”

Bro says, “No, Sis. I have been landing in pasture pastry and walking my way out. Any way, I like the way Rocky Butte looks from here. I’m going. And FYI, it is not ‘retorisome.’ It is retorical. In Spanish it is retorico. You can take it apart and get reto and rico. And a reto rico is a rich challenge. And that is what I mean about Rocky Butte, a rich challenge.”

Sis says, “Well, Bro, really, we are well equipped. Ma and Pa have done a good job getting us ready to go our separate ways. I will always love you. Even if I don’t remember who the hell you are.”

Bro says, “Same here, Sis.”

Meanwhile, up at the take off the paraglider pilots are waiting for the wind to get launchable.

Gee says, “Radically awesome. I wonder if the first guy to do full stalls in a paraglider learned it from red tails.”

Dee says, “ProbaBLEE! And he was probably the first guy to use the full stall to get out of a cloud suck situation. We use the full stall a lot now just for the thrill. But, still, it is good practice in addition to being exciting.”

Gee says, “Yeah, I love that rush when I pull the right and left control lines vigorously and symetrically down to my thighs and the canopy collapses into a roseate and I drop out of the picture at a hundred plus miles per hour.”

Dee says, “Yep. It is grrrrrrrreat! Just like red tails. Hey, you know, coming up here back last century and flying just shows me that predestination is a lot of crap. I say it is chance that we saw this mountain years ago and imagined it would be a good fly mountain.”

Gee says, “Yeah, Dee, but it was our being prepared to size it up that made it even a consideration. And preparing to size it up was not chance. That was volition.”

Dee says, “Well, whatever. It is great that the red tails, for all these years, have not only put on good air shows but, have also been there to just fly around and, while hunting, show us what the wind is doing, telling us stuff we would not be able to see, otherwise.”

Gee says, “Yup, Dee, you are right as up wind. The beautiful Estero Bay, quiet little fishing pier town, and a fly mountain with red tail guides. Think you will ever move back to the megalopolis?”

Dee says, “Nope, this place is just about perfect. No crowds. Unpolluted air. Great flying every day and a very low cloud suck to pilot ratio. And …”

Gee says, “… and red tails! Right on! Let’s fly, man.”

Breeding and Nesting

During breeding season they do dramatic flight displays. They will fly in circles until they are very high, and the male will dive, and then circle back up again. The two birds will lock talons, and tumble towards the ground in a free fall, letting go just above the ground. The hawks are monogamous, normally mating for life, and staying in the same territory each year. They may have more than one nest in their territory, and alternate between them. Both sexes help build a large nest of sticks, and twigs lined with bark, placed high in a tree or on a cliff. Throughout the nesting period the nest will have bits of green vegetation added to it. The female lays 2 to 4 white eggs with brown spots which she will incubate for 4 to 5 weeks. The parents will both feed the nestlings. The young birds will be able to fly in around 45 days, and then the parents will teach them to hunt.


Red-tail hawks are good hunters, feeding on small mammals such as rabbits, or other rodents, birds, reptiles, and insects. They will either soar, or perch on a high branch, or poll to survey the surrounding area with their sharp eyes. While soaring they may ride motionless on an air current, suddenly fold their wings, an shoot down like a bullet to grab a small bird below. Hawks have binocular vision, and their incredible sight allows them to see a mouse on the ground while soaring 100 feet up. When they spot their prey they swoop down on it, there dives can reach over 100 miles an hour. When they grasp their prey, and clench their toes the talons pierce the vital organs, and cause instant death.

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