Monday, December 1, 2014

Book Review: Rufous Redtail

Book Title: Rufous Redtail
Author: Helen Garrett
Date: 1947
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: none
Length: 158 pages
Illustrations: black-and-white pictures by Francis Lee Jaques
Quote: “Rufous was a little redtail hawk.”
In the course of this book he grows up to be a full-sized redtail hawk. Rufous and the other animals he meets are given names, and anthropomorphic personalities, thoughts, and conversations, but the primary purpose of the book is to teach middle school readers facts about wildlife.
Not all readers like this kind of mixture of observed facts about animals with lessons aimed at human children. Like a human child, Rufous asks too many questions, and his mother pops food into his mouth to stop his chatter. After being told what rain is, he says, “Life has a lot of bad things in it, hasn’t it, like rain?...I guess I know a lot about life now, all about night and day, sun and rain, and good and bad.” Thinking his mother still treats him like a baby, he starts flying on his own, and spends some time squatting on the ground before his mother shows him how to hop from branch to branch and get back to the nest.
When the hawks go south for the winter, Rufous meets another young hawk who shows him how to steal chickens, which Rufous has been taught is bad. “His mother wouldn’t approve of Buzzy if she knew...Buzzy’s own family had cast him off as a chicken thief and likely to bring bad luck.” This is artistic license; most observers report that red-tailed hawks are likely to start raiding chicken yards after, rather than before, they’ve had bad luck. Healthy red-tails usually stay in places that offer more variety of prey than farmyards do; widowed, injured, and sickly red-tails become dangerous to chickens and other small, young livestock. Sure enough, Buzzy is shot the next time he grabs a guinea fowl. Rufous observes that when hawks start eating chickens, they tend to gain weight and become dependent on raiding farmyards, which usually leads to their being shot or poisoned.
Free-range chickens are healthier than caged chickens, produce better eggs, and eventually become better meat. Relationships between hawks and people who let their chickens roam can easily go sour; there is really no substitute for a human being outdoors with the chickens. When humans spend a lot of time doing manual labor in the farm, garden, or orchard, chickens can follow the humans everywhere, and hawks tend to stay away. It is possible for humans to love both species...but, historically, most humans have been too lazy to do this, and tend to appreciate either hawks or chickens but not both.
Anyway, Rufous grows up, leaves his mother’s side, and finds a mate. The author’s attempt to describe Rufous’ and Beauty’s courtship in language fit for third grade readers is...not as bad as you might have expected.
During Rufous’s infancy, his mother told him he’d know he was an adult when his tail feathers grew in red. This was a chancy prediction; all bald eagles eventually develop the white head feathers that resemble the “bald” cliffs at the tops of mountains, but not all redtails ever have red tails. Often the red feathers are visible only from the top, and some redtails have only brown, black, or white tail feathers throughout their lives. (Different color patterns have, in the past, been identified as different species, but are now known to interbreed easily enough to be classified as the same species as the classic “red-tailed” type.) Rufous was, however, genetically predestined to get his red feathers just when his offspring were old enough that Garrett could imagine them laughing at the way Daddy looked while shedding his old tail feathers.
That’s not quite good enough for Garrett, though. She wanted a note of inspiration to humans for the climax of her book, so just before Rufous and Beauty molt, they happen to see a baby human stray away from its parents into the woods. Redtails aren’t strong enough to fight the predators that might attack a human child in the woods, but the hawks watch the child and lead rescuers to find it. Although it would be hard to claim that hawks do such things out of public spirit, it seems possible for Garrett to imagine that Rufous has a kind of understated spiritual experience, an awareness that other creatures feel fatherly and protective just as he does. This is his growing-up moment...and then he molts, and his tail feathers grow in red.
How bad is this ending? The fact is that hawks do bond with humans. Individuals in all the raptor species have soft sides. Eagles have been known to keep redtails, and redtails have even been reported to keep chickens, as pets. Tame hawks, like pet cats and dogs, will kill vermin and share rabbits, pigeons, etc., with their human friends. It’s a good idea for humans to wear leather gear when close to hawks, but some pet hawks have been photographed sitting on the bare heads and hands of humans who swear that their pets have never hurt them. So it’s not altogether impossible that Rufous might have felt gratified by some dim sense that he’d done something nice for another animal. Unlikely, but not impossible. 
Rufous Redtail would be a challenging read for third and fourth grade students, and may sound juvenile to fifth or sixth grade students. Its message deserves to be appreciated by all children. Some people still (illegally) kill all hawks on sight, and while redtails who have sunk to raiding henyards, like man-eating tigers, are sick individuals who need and deserve to be killed, children need to know that most hawks prefer a completely wild life and do not attack our pets.

One thing about redtails that’s not mentioned in this book is that, although theoretically capable of killing a human if they hit from the right angle,  redtails are poor fighters on the ground. More than once I’ve seen a redtail stoop to grab a baby chicken, miss, and be completely routed—even injured—in a fight with a protective bantam hen. Although the hawk is much bigger, with much longer, stronger wings and much sharper beak and claws, it’s neither built nor instinctively “wired” to fight other birds. Smaller birds can out-maneuver redtails even in the air; it’s amusing to watch a tiny kingbird chasing any of the big raptors off the kingbird’s territory. Most of the raptors are very efficient killers when they’re hungry, competent defensive fighters, but generally not bullies.  

The price this book is showing on Amazon is unreal. I can't believe I bought a physical copy for a dime and sold it for fifty cents! Even though Helen Garrett no longer needs the $35 royalty, the best offer I can make on this book, now, is $350 + $5 shipping.