The trees have taken on their winter look, letting us easily see into them. Too bad the birds have gone south seeking food.

Among those remaining, one is prominent and very visible now through the winter.

The red-tailed hawk sits upright on a limb with a posture no mom or aunt could ever criticize. To human eyes, the hawk appears proud, fearless, majestic, its white front bisected by a band of streaks.

The fearless part is right. Up in the tree, only another bird could readily get to a red-tailed, but what other bird would pick a fight with the heavyweight champ (weighing in at 2.4 pounds) of the large hawks on the East Coast?

This is a predator that makes short work and a feast of a pound-and-a-half gray squirrel, or a 4-foot long black snake, or an occasional bird. One of the many services people have provided to red-tailed hawks is to raise very edible and easily caught chickens and guinea hens.

In fairness to the hawks, however, such predation is a tiny portion of their diet, which mainly consists of rodents of all kinds, from the smallest mice up through the size of a muskrat.

When you see them perched, red-tails are patiently waiting for such a rodent to poke its head up, pass through a bit of open ground, rustle the grass in a characteristic way - make whatever small mistake will blow its cover and allow the hawk to claim its next meal.

Felling forests and turning them into fields has been a far greater service to red-tailed hawks than any provision of poultry we might make. Not only do such fields - often to grow grains and vegetables - increase the stock of their rodent prey, they also provide excellent hunting ground to sweep over with their hawk eyes from adjacent trees or manmade perches.

Then, as if fields were not enough, we put highways everywhere, lined with wide grassy buffers also excellent for hunting hawks. In southern New Jersey, we could rightly call this species the parkway hawk.

And where there were no trees to hunt from in the plains, we planted them (and put up poles and buildings) - allowing red-tailed hawks to become common in most of the continent.

In return, they have helped keep a lid on the rodent population and provided at least one instance of people benefiting wildlife.

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