Monday, February 01, 2010

Will my Redtails starve in the snow? asks a Virginia hawk lover. John Blakeman responds

Ashby's redtail outside her window

Ashby's pair, photographed from inside the apartment

Yesterday I received a letter from an anxious hawk lover:

Hi Marie,

I am worried that my Red-Tail couple may starve or freeze in the snow. They have never seen a storm this bad. There's a foot of snow on the ground, and the chill factor is 6 degrees Fahrenheit, unheard of in central Virginia. Also, they may be senior citizens, having lived in the park across the street for a dozen years that I know of. Should I feed them? Will they be OK?

[Ashby attached the photos above]

All day they stayed perched on the 12th-story railing looking forlorn. The park across the street where they hunt is covered with snow, not a rodent to be found. These 2 hawks are like family. They came to my window to visit me when I was ill, and I hate to see them suffer...

Well, I sent Ashby's letter to John Blakeman immediately. As ever, his response came quickly. He wrote directly to Ashby and sent me a copy:


Take no concern whatsoever. Your red-tails are in just perfect health, and very contented. Your photos reveal this. I’ve been studying and caring for red-tails since 1968, and I can assure you that everything is fine with them, the (for Virginia) snow notwithstanding.

The key is this. The birds can easily go four to seven days without food before they even begin to get desperate. In the winter, they have lots of energy-reserve fat for occasions just such this. They can comfortably go for days without food. That happens, too, in winter wind and rainstorm events, so none of this is new to these birds.

The cold? Well, for Virginia it might be cold. But not for Eastern Red-tailed Hawks, Buteo jamaicensis borealis. At 20 below there is concern. But not with the comparatively mild temps you have down there.

Notice how fluffed up the feathers are? They’ve got two inches of the finest and warmest feather down under there, keeping the body core perfectly warm. They aren’t cold at all.

They are just passing the time, watching out over the park for anything that moves. A chipmunk or squirrel or rat that sooner or later pokes its nose out and starts wandering around looking for food will become food itself, for the hawks. They know where every rodent territory is out there, and they know that the rats and mice are—now—safely under the snow. But that won’t last, and food will be available.

You are so fortunate to have the birds sitting at your window. Marvel at all of this, and worry not about their welfare. Their genes have this all accounted for.

Were they to learn of it, our red-tails up here in Ohio and New York would be telling a few good stories about those Southern hawks, how for a time, they had to live like Yankee hawks have to all winter (and very successfully).

My very best.
John A. Blakeman