We’re raising money for transmitters – Support the Red-tailed Hawk Project!

This fundraising campaign ends on 15 November, 2020. Make a contribution today!

Make a one-time contribution of any amount

Help us purchase additional GPS transmitters! To make a contribution* of any amount, select the number in dollars below (e.g. selecting 70 will equal a $70 contribution). This one-time contribution* will be put towards the purchase of additional tracking devices, which cost $790 per transmitter.

1.00 $

Or, select a support level and get one, or all of the following items if you contribute!

Why are we asking for your support?

As you may know, we currently have two birds that are transmitting data to achieve two objectives: connect their phenotype and genotype to a breeding location and resolve the status of polymorphism in the subspecies abieticola. At this point we need to get many more transmitters out, because two birds is not enough to understand to what population these types belong. We also want to add more birds carrying transmitters as a strategy for obtaining breeding locations for population genomics work, while developing a growing dataset to answer questions including, but not limited to, the timing of movements, differential movements between and within populations, and to better understand plumage type as an indicator of geographic origin.

We need your help to do this! Our strategy is costly, because it requires a great deal of money and time on our part. Despite these costs, this strategy is the most efficient and effective method for achieving our research goals, because by approaching the sampling with transmitters we will avoid the challenge of international permitting, and the cost of travel to difficult areas to access such as the remote forests of boreal Canada. In other words, by tackling this research in this way, we will save both time and money!

The Plan

We plan to begin an ambitious effort for deploying transmitters starting this coming winter. Below is a detail of our plan, and how the money contributed by you will make this happen:

  • We plan to use the money from this campaign to purchase at least 10 tracking units to deploy this coming winter in the northeastern U.S., and the Great Plains. Even if COVID 19 limits this effort, we will be able to at least deploy units in New York and Kansas. 
  • We will make the money you contribute go the farthest it can. To do this, we will target wintering subspecies that breed in regions that are logistically difficult and expensive to access, such as Boreal Canada and Alaska. These include B. j. harlaniabieticola, and a dark non-harlani (potentially abieticola) type that winters in the Great Plains, and on occasion parts of the east.
  • If we deploy these ten units this year, and obtain photographs and blood samples from each bird, we will have a solid start to the sampling for the evolutionary research, as well as for building an extensive dataset of full cycle movements for these enigmatic subspecies. 

What We Need & What You Get

To get the sampling started to achieve all of our research objectives, we need to purchase transmitters. Below is a summary of how much these transmitters cost, and how the money you contribute will be applied.

  • Cost of transmitters –  One unit =  $790 ($500 per unit, plus $100 for insurance, $120 for yearly data fees, and $70 for shipping from the company in Europe). We would very much like to deploy at least ten of these units this winter, so we hope to raise as much as $10,000! 
  • A contribution from you is not just generosity. There is a perk! You can choose to make a contribution of any amount, or you can choose support levels that include perks the following perks: $20 – Red-tailed Hawk Stickers; $30 – Dark Morph Red-tailed Hawk Tee; $60 – a limited archival giclee print of a Western Red-tailed Hawk plate, illustrated by Bryce W. Robinson; and for $100 you receive all three! To claim these perks, click on the photos above! All orders will be filled after the campaign ends on 15 November, so you will receive your order sometime before December.
  • We’ll regularly post updates on the birds that are carrying transmitters purchased by this campaign. These updates will be on the project website, as well as our Facebook page. If you choose to contribute, please let us know where you heard about the campaign so that we can be sure you will see these updates.

The Impact

We are creating a research program that will grow, enabling an increased understanding of this widespread and beloved species. But the data we gather from our effort will also go beyond understanding the Red-tailed Hawk alone. Here are a few examples of the impact we think our program will have:

  • At the most fundamental level, our work will provide insight into Red-tailed Hawk subspecies that have been an enigma for so long. By attaching genetic samples to the breeding locations we obtain with the transmitters, we will be able to put genetic context to subspecies concepts, which might help us understand why harlani appears to be so different, and if subspecies such as abieticola truly are a distinct population.
  • Our work will also help us understand the evolutionary history of this species, which will be extremely informative for understanding the diversity we see in the species today, as well as providing yet another perspective on how geologic history can shape the process of speciation.
  • Connecting year round movement patterns to plumage and genetics will strengthen our ability to monitor Red-tailed Hawks, and enact conservation efforts if these are ever necessary. Even more, by doing so in Red-tailed Hawks, we can continue to refine this technique for use in other species. 
  • We also hope that by crowdfunding for transmitters, we can involve the community in this research, and expand our collective understanding of this beloved raptor. Through this, we also hope that anyone involved will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for how this type of research is conducted. 

Risks & Challenges

Transmitters can fail, birds can die for many reasons, natural and human caused. It is possible that some of the transmitters we deploy will not provide movement data, or a breeding location. But, we have a plan in case this happens!

  • We plan to purchase insurance on the transmitters, so that in the event that a unit stops working for any reason, they will be replaced and we can try again. 
  • If a bird dies, we can follow the signal of the unit to its location and assess the cause of death. Many studies use this technique to track hawks, and birds alike. Deaths from transmitters are extremely rare, so the likelihood of the transmitter harming a bird is very small. But birds still die from natural causes, or they get shot, hit by a car, or a wind turbine. We’ll know if this happens, and we’ll learn a lot if it does.

Other Ways You Can Help

We understand that you may have a keen interest in this work, but can’t donate any money. Some people just can’t contribute, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help:

  • Regardless of whether or not you contribute money, please follow us on Facebook, and share the project with your friends. Please encourage others to follow along, and to help us out!
  • Make sure to regularly check in on the website to follow along on our progress on the blog. We’ll post regular updates here, as well as discussions on subspecies identification, and more.

Thank you so much for your help! We’re excited to have you along!

*It’s important to note that unfortunately, a contribution to our effort is not at this time tax deductible. If this impacts your decision to contribute in any way, please contact us!

We have breeding locations!

After months of waiting, our birds Kansas 01 and 02 have started their fall migration back to their wintering areas in Kansas. We now know where each bird breeds, and we can tell a bit about each just from this knowledge.

Surprisingly, both birds breed in an area of northern British Columbia, in a glacial valley on the western side of the front range. To me, this is perhaps the most surprising part of the story. Both birds follow a very east/west migration path that includes a flight over the mountains, rather than tracing ridge lines in a more north/south direction. Very peculiar, but enlightening!

The birds appeared to have nested, and it looks like our birds are one male and one female. Check out the image below that indicates that within reason, both did indeed breed, because of the central orientation of the movements. For both images, I filtered the dates for the locations to include 6 June to 6 July, and cropped each at the same dimensions and altitude, so they represent approximately the same coverage of geographic area. Focus on the dots, and ignore the lines and you can tell the clustering is quite different for the two during this time period.

These clusters suggest that KAHA 01 (red) is likely a male, while KAHA 02 (purple) is likely a female. From the distribution of the spread during particular times, we can tell that KAHA 02 was probably incubating, and the breadth of the movements of KAHA 01 suggest it was making foraging movements quite regularly throughout the summer. We do have blood samples from each so we have the ability to check for certain if these are a male and a female.

What subspecies are these birds? Does this answer the question of whether or not the subspecies abieticola has a dark morph? The short answer is that it is complicated, and at the moment it does not answer the question of polymorphism in abieticola. This is for two reasons – the first being that this region is a contact zone between as many as four taxa – calurus, harlani, abieticola, and borealis. Thus, the genetic work will be crucial for figuring out where these two birds fit in these categories, if they fit at all!

To solve the subspecies question, we need to put out more transmitters!

Special thanks to the organizations that made this work possible: Burroughs Audubon Society, Kansas Ornithological Society, and the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA).

Are there B. j. calurus that winter in the great plains?

The question of whether or not Western Red-tailed Hawks winter on the great plains has been debated for years. Below I detail an anecdote that shows that at least one bird does…

We were surprised to catch the bird below in eastern Kansas last winter. It’s a rufous bird that as far as I can tell, is a Western Red-tailed Hawk (ssp. calurus). Take a look, and compare the bird to the photos of a bird I caught near Boise, Idaho, in July.

Eastern Kansas – February 2020

Southwestern Idaho – July 2020

Westerns, or nearly pure Westerns, do breed east of the rockies in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, etc. The hybrid zone from calurus into borealis hasn’t been properly characterized, but through eBird and the Macaulay Library we are beginning to get a broad picture of this cline. Consider the pattern at the Colorado contact zone. We know that borealis breed to the front range in Colorado (with influence likely entering the range in some areas), and interbreed with calurus throughout the region. One the other end, Kansas is yet to have a clearly documented breeding calurus in the state, although Luke may change that, but that is his story. The point is, calurus influence largely fades out before the border between Colorado and Kansas.

Could the rufous bird we caught come from an area like the Colorado contact zone? Could it have originated from intermountain region? Or could it come from further north within the distribution of calurus in British Columbia?

At the moment, we don’t have the answers for these questions, but we can find out by scaling up our transmitter effort!

A Potential Intergrade harlani X abieticola

In February 2020, we trapped a very interesting dark bird north of Atchison, Kansas. We were targeting dark non-harlani for our transmitter effort to track these birds to their breeding grounds as a first step for understanding if the subspecies abieticola is polymorphic.

At first pass this bird looked like our target, but when we extracted it we immediately saw the multiple harlani traits throughout the birds plumage. After later successfully trapping our targets, I came back to photos of this bird for comparison and recognized the similarities in traits, which led me to the conclusion that this interesting dark bird is likely an intergrade between harlani and the dark birds that we outfitted with transmitters (we are calling these abieticola, which might be an oversimplification, but we’re working on it!)

Below I’ve included a figure that compares a dark harlani (top) that I trapped with Neil Paprocki, Caitlin Davis, and Johnna Eilers in Northern Idaho in November 2019, the interesting intergrade (middle), and one of our transmitter birds (bottom). I also included photos of the tails of each to allow more detailed comparison between the three.

KANSAS 02 Spotted in Canada, and an Update on our Birds

On April 25, a friend, Sylvain Bourdages, found one of our birds, Kansas 02 (purple track below), near Grand Prairie, Alberta, Canada. Although the bird was far from the road, Sylvain was able to take a few photos. We thought it would be a nice thing to share along with an update on where we last heard from both birds.

Both of our birds ended up going through this migration rich region of Alberta. We last heard from them on 1 May. Because these transmitters depend on cellular service to transmit data, this indicates that the birds have moved out of cell range somewhere in Canada or Alaska, and we likely won’t find out where they breed until they return south this coming fall.

Thanks for the photos Sylvain!

Meet our Current Birds Gathering Movement Data

In late February 2020, Bryce, Luke, and Mark teamed up in eastern Kansas to trap two dark morph, non-harlani Red-tailed Hawks. The objective was to deploy GSM transmitters to better understand where this phenotype breeds, and along with blood and feather samples thus discover their proper subspecies designation. In the past, this type was considered to belong to calurus, but given the status of light calurus in the eastern plains and the current understanding of winter distributions of abieticola, Jerry Liguori and Brain Sullivan suggested that these dark birds may represent the previously undescribed dark morph abieticola. Because of some evidence of where this phenotype ends up during migration and the breeding season, this idea held some favor. So, we decided to organize and attempt to discover the proper subspecies designation for this subtly unique type.

On 1 March, after ten days of trapping we successfully outfitted two dark non-harlani birds with GSM units. Below are photos of each bird, as well as a summary of their movements up to 20 April 2020.

Kansas 01, Transmitter 67

Kansas 02, Transmitter 97

These birds are still moving, and we are yet to receive indication on where they will settle to breed. As expected, each is headed into the northern boreal forests. The GSM transmitters depend on the cellular network to transmit data, so we may not hear from either bird until they come back into cell reception next fall.

In the future, we will be adding more birds to this dark morph abieticola effort, as well as birds of other migratory subspecies. You can find a full list and photos of our current birds on the Movement Ecology page.

A special thanks to John Bolin and Dave Rintoul for their help in Kansas!


… a research collaboration that focuses on the study of Buteo jamaicensis, a common and widespread raptor of North and Central America.

The goals of this collaboration are to fill knowledge gaps in subspecies identification and distribution, movement ecology, and an almost untouched subject in this species, genomics. Learn more about our research objectives on our Research Page.

We also aim to create a resource for subspecies distribution and identification. To learn more about how to identify and where to find each subspecies, visit the developing Subspecies Guide.

At the moment, the Red-tailed Hawk Project includes researchers from two institutions – the University of Kansas and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, along with support from Ornithologi: A Studio for Bird Study. To learn more about the people behind this work, visit the Researchers page.

The Red-tailed Hawk Project is also active on social media, where we plan to share updates about our work and the publications that result from our research. Visit our Facebook page for discussion on subspecies identification, distribution, and to share photos of Red-tailed Hawks from your region.

Research is a costly endeavor that most often requires community involvement and support. If you would like to support our work or get involved, contact us!