Mid-week Reptilian #1: Red-tailed Hawk?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at 3:23 PM Bookmark and Share
As the first subject of this themed series of posts, I thought the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) would make the perfect subject. Why? Well, what better species to pick for the first mid-week reptilian!

I know, I know - it's a bird, but just let me explain.

My early interest in reptiles got me into reading about herpetology - the study of reptiles and amphibians. Growing up in the dry prairies of Colorado, reptiles were much easier to come by that amphibians and to be honest, amphibians never really did it for me. Sure, some are downright amazing, but they just didn't grab my attention as much as the squamates (snakes and lizards), testudines (turtles, tortises), crocodilians (alligators, caimens, etc.), and the last of the sphenodonts, the tuataras.

In high school, I got into birding and reptiles fell by the wayside. After all, birds are more visible, can be observed year round, and there was a pretty big birding community I was able to join and learn from.

After moving to western New York a few years ago for grad school, I found the world of amphibians more accessible.  I also met a lot of top-notch biologists and learned a lot more about bird, reptiles and amphibian biology, (in addition to the math I came to learn in grad school).

As luck would have it - those added insights (especially from phylogenetics) provided me with my long desired excuse to at last feel justified in my lack of enthusiasm for amphibians despite my love of all things feathered and scaley:

Reptiles (green field) are a paraphyletic group comprised 
of all non-avian, non-mammalian amniotes. [Source]


That's right - in terms of evolutionary relationships, birds are basically reptiles. The amphibians? They're off on a more distantly related branch of tetrapods! Ha!  So ignoring the biological history and their ecological similarities, and speaking a little tongue-in-cheek, one could almost compare "herpetology" to something like "fluffy-ology" - the study of all mammals excluding the cetaceans and  including the birds.  Yeah, you could still do some really cool and important science as a fluffy-ologist, but in terms of their actual relationships it's kind of a strange way to group these organisms.

So with that phylogenetic evidence in hand, I'm casting off the amphibians and sticking to the proper clade of reptilia for this series of posts - lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and yes... birds.

Red-tailed Hawks

...are ubiquitous in North America.  There are a number of field-identifiable subspecies types, various color morphs within and across subspecies and (like many birds) also show different plumage as juveniles.  This makes for a dizzying array of plumage variation, and plenty of natural variation to wonder about.  For example, have a look at the variation documented in just one subspecies (the "Harlan's Hawk") in a recent article in the magazine Birding.  Here's one of the cooler tail patterns on an adult Red-tailed Hawk from the article:

Unusual tail pattern from this article in Birding, by William S. Clark. [see below]

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