Early this winter I had the opportunity to observe a couple of Red-tailed Hawks from a whole new perspective. My friend Eric Peterson and I assisted Conservation Biologist Neil Paprocki with a HawkWatch International banding project while we were also working on establishing a new winter raptor survey route for HawkWatch. I considered it a real treat to turn the bed of my truck into a hawk banding station.
Rather than lure in migrating hawks from a mountain ridge we drove to Cedar Valley in Utah County to trap hawks from perches using a Bal Chatri trap. All of this was done under the direction and supervision of Neil because it is against the law to trap birds without proper government permits.
We were able to catch and band two Red-tailed hawks that morning and I considered it a real privilege to learn about hawks, raptor biology, and a host of little details about raptors as Eric and I assisted Neil in his work.
Knowing that it might be a while before getting the opportunity again I decided to document the process for sharing and for my own future reference.
After retrieving our first hawk from the trap Neil walked us through a process for checking the health of the bird.
We placed the bird head first into a metal can to keep it calm as it was weighed and measured. Eric recorded the details on a data sheet that would be used to register the hawk and its band data with the Bird Banding Lab which is run by the U.S. Geological Survey.
After weighing the bird Neil measured the hawk's leg to choose the proper band size. A uniquely-numbered federal aluminum band was then selected and secured on the leg of the hawk. Eric recorded the band number on the data sheet.
The tail feather length was measured.
The wing cord was measured.
Neil inspected the bird for parasites as he processed the bird. The crop was checked for recently eaten food and the keel was checked to understand breast muscle condition. Before removing the bird from the can a wing pit was checked for fat storage. Neil exposed the wing pit by blowing into the feathers to separate them.
Once the wing pit was checked it was time to remove the hawk from the can to capture documentation photos. This hawk showed typical plumage and eye color for a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, but a dark fleck near the iris of the left eye was unique to this individual.
Neil was deliberate in how he handled the hawk for the documentation photos in order to prevent injury to the bird. Upperside, underside, and tail images were captured.
All the data from banding the hawk was recorded on the data sheet shown below.
After being instructed by Neil on how to safely handle and release the hawk I posed for a picture and then released the hawk as Eric captured a video clip of the release.
Here's the video of the release as recorded on Eric's phone.
Our second hawk of the day was another juvenile Red-tailed Hawk which Eric was able to release after we completed the banding process.
One of my favorite hawk species is the Ferruginous Hawk. The juvenile Ferruginous Hawk pictured below was perched on a pole nearby as we trapped and processed the second Red-tailed Hawk of the day. I can't imagine what was registering in this Hawk's brain as it watched us handle and process the Red-tailed Hawk. It would have been fun to band the curious hawk. Perhaps I'll make it out to the Goshutes banding site in Nevada during fall migration so I can get up close and personal with some more amazing raptors under the supervision of HawkWatch International biologists.