Thursday, August 14, 2014

Birdlore - Legend of the Red-tailed Hawk

Imagine you’re driving through the open countryside on a sunny day with a few puffy clouds drifting in the distance.   There’s little to no traffic, only farms and orchards passing by on the right and left as you cruise down the highway.  A very uneventful trip, you might say until a flurry of wings diving towards the ground captures your attention! (While still making glances towards the road for traffic, of course!)
Wagner displays the distinctive red tail feather for which the species is named (photo: Gay Schroer)

A Red-tailed Hawk, (buteo jamaiciensis) with its distinctive red tail feathers, has made an attempt to grab prey that it spotted in the tall grass or ditches alongside the road.  My frequent trips into the countryside are always filled with anticipation.  What birds am I going to see?  Where am I going to see them?  Are they just perching or flying?

A Red-tailed Hawk’s typical plummage (photo: The Wikipedia files)
Most of the time I see Red-tailed Hawks perching on branches, often on a specific fence post, or diving for their prey.  Once I even spotted a Red-tailed Hawk perched on the World Bird Sanctuary destination sign at the Highway 44/141 junction.  You simply never know where these hawks may appear next!

Despite how common they are, the Red-tailed Hawk is held in high esteem by Native Americans.  Native Americans treat the Red-tailed Hawk feathers as sacred objects, just as they do Bald Eagle feathers, and incorporate them into religious ceremonies and rituals. 

In the Legend of The Tlanuwa and The Uktena, a village of the Ani Yunwiya (the Cherokee people) rested near a place called Hogahega Uweyu i along the Wanegas, known today as the Tennessee River.  The caves at this place were an ancient home of the Tlanuwa.

The people in the village never had problems with the Tlanuwa before, until one day the great hawks came and carried away most of the young children.  The grieving mothers pleaded with the men to bring back the children stolen by the Tlanuwa.

So the men went to the Tlanuwa caves.  They made ropes from vines growing near by to climb down the cliffs to reach the caves and waited for the great hawks to leave again.  Once they lowered themselves into the caves and found the missing children, they heard more Tlanuwa returning with more children in their grasp.  In order to buy time and distract the great hawks, the men quickly threw the unhatched eggs of the Tlanuwa over the cliffs into the water below.  When the eggs hit the water, the great Uktena, horned serpents, came up from below the water and began eating the eggs as quickly as the men were throwing them.

The Tlanuwa, very angry, dropped the children from their talons to the waiting men below.  A long and terrible fight began between the Tlanuwa and Uktena.  The Tlanuwa destroyed the Uktena into four pieces and scattered its remains across the country.

After the terrible fight, the Tlanuwa were angry at the men for what they had done to their eggs and flew far away, beyond the sky, never to return.

Today, it is still said that on the banks of the Hogahega Uweyu i, one can still see the rocks that were stained from the blood of the Uktena and Tlanuwa from that terrible fight they had in ancient times.
Sequoia, a resident WBS Red-tailed Hawk (photo: Gay Schroer)

While we do not have a Tlanuwa at the World Bird Sanctuary, we do have their descendents (according to the legend—several Red-tailed Hawks on display.  As you stroll our paths and visit the Nature Center, look for the large hawk with the telltale rusty red tail.

Submitted by Jessica Bunke, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist/Trainer

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