It's no accident red-tail hawks have been easy to spot this winter
Deer emerge occasionally, grazing on south-facing slopes on frigid days or picking through fields for the last kernels of waste grain.
Canada geese are more common until ice forces them elsewhere. Even coyotes appear now and then.
But when it comes to winter wildlife watching along Interstate 74, there's no more cooperative critter than the red-tailed hawk. On every drive to work I spot red-tails perched on trees, fence posts, power poles, signs and even on the ground.
Most days I can see at least three or four hawks. But on a recent sunny afternoon the count soared to 13 in just 25 miles between Peoria and Elmwood.
That's a lot of hawks. According to birding experts, that's no accident.
'I think there's pretty compelling evidence there's more red-tailed hawks around now than there have been in the past 40 or 50 years,' said Jeff Walk, a conservation planner with The Nature Conservancy who earned Masters and Doctorate degrees from the University of Illinois while studying grassland birds.
Walk cites North American Breeding Bird Surveys that show small but steady increases in red-tails since the 1960s. He attributes the increases partly to cleanup of chemical pollution, partly to changed social norms.
'It's just not socially acceptable to blast raptors out of the sky like it was 30 or 40 years ago,' Walk said.
That doesn't sit well with everyone, though. There are those who (wrongly) finger hawks as the main cause for declines in upland game. Others claim red-tail numbers have increased dramatically.
Experts say other factors may lead people to the latter conclusion.
'People ask us all the time at programs, ‘Why do I see more red-tails now than before?' Those questions always come up at the same time: in the fall or winter,' said Jacques Nuzzo, program director at the Illinois Raptor Center. 'My theory is, they are here in the summer, they're just not as easy to spot because the leaves are on the trees. In the fall and winter when the leaves are gone, they stand out like a sore thumb.'
Another factor is changed hawk habitat, according to Vern Kleen, former avian ecology program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
'People are seeing them because they are next to the roadside,' Kleen said. 'They are sitting on fence posts and power poles next to the roadside in places where people can see them because the fields are not as productive for the critters to live in — the found sources. It's all about the food sources.'
And where are most of the few remaining grassy expanses in Illinois? Along roads. That's where red-tails can find mice, snakes, grasshoppers and even occasional quail and rabbits.
Where's another hawk buffet? Around golf courses, parks, suburban areas and even in cities. One of my favorite urban raptors frequented the old Shell station at University and Glen in Peoria (now a Starbuck's coffee shop). Clerks had numerous pictures of a red-tail that visited the station most days while making its rounds.
Being able to live that close to people underlines red-tails famed adaptability. They are not picky about what they eat and are not particularly picky about where they nest.
Even so, they are not perfect predators. A falconer, Nuzzo has often hunted with red-tailed hawks. He says the birds are successful only about 10 percent of the time they fly after prey.
And winter is particularly difficult for juvenile birds, which face mortality rates above 65 percent. No doubt that's why I've seen three red-tail carcasses in recent months.
Hawk-haters probably view that as good news. Not me.
While the thought of a red-tail killing quail makes me jealous, that's part of nature. Besides, I much prefer seeing red tails perched along Interstate 74 to spotting them strewn on the pavement.
JEFF LAMPE is Journal Star outdoors columnist. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3212 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org