Chapter Books

Rufous Redtail

I read this book when I was around 10, and I’ve always remembered it as one of the best. I didn’t remember all the details, but I remembered some of them. Mostly I remembered it as a book that had a strong impact, opening my eyes to new knowledge and moving me deeply.

You won’t find much about Rufous Redtail (1947) online, or about its author, Helen Garrett. There is more information out there about its illustrator, Francis Lee Jaques. Out of print and priced far out of my range, this novel makes an appearance from time to time at used book sites. It follows a red-tailed hawk from the day he hatches out of his egg, through his mastery of flight and hunting and his fall migration, on to his return to the Northeast in the spring and his finding of a mate and raising of a family. (We live in the Northeast, and red-tails don’t migrate in the winter. Rufous spends summers farther North than we are.)

A young red-tail in our neighborhood.

Our library system doesn’t have it, but a wonderful librarian found a copy at the library of the state capital and requested it for us. It took us four days to read, and we enjoyed every word and picture. It’s full of detail about red-tailed hawks, and I wish I could learn more about its author, who must have had many opportunities to observe these grand birds firsthand. But it’s also a coming-of-age story that takes Rufous from the egotism of a newly hatched chick bursting with pride to the confidence and knowledge of a mature adult hawk. We laughed often as we read, and were sometimes brought to tears.

Another local red-tail, this one mature.

The birds talk in this book, but it’s not sentimentalized the way Thornton Burgess’s stories are. The dialogue carries the plot forward and gives us necessary information without spoiling the realism of the characters. Unlike many of the modern nature books we’ve read, there is no politicization — no page in the back highlighting the loss of habitat of this species, no legislative initiative for this or that, no website to visit to see how you can help. These things have probably been worthwhile and helpful in protecting species and cultivating an ecological ethic. But what shines through in this novel is love for nature, wilderness particularly, and for the creatures that make their homes there.

I think this delight and wonder are stronger influences than anything else. Reach the hearts of children, and they’ll remember. I have remembered this book for several decades, not because someone was defending hawks, but because someone painted their lives in words in such a way as to make me respect and admire and love them myself. I can’t see into the future, but judging from their reactions, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear my daughters saying the same thing someday.

Jaques' illustrations adorn the inside cover.

4 thoughts on “Rufous Redtail

  1. Oh, do link this post up to RAT this week! What a fabulous tribute to a book you loved as a child, and what a wonderful example of passing down your reading heritage! The book sounds lovely. I just read a Jim Arnosky book last night that you and your girls would love: Thunder Birds. I hope to review it in the next couple of weeks.

  2. Thanks, Amy. I’ll definitely link up on Thursday. And I’ll have to look for Thunder Birds!

    Alice, I hope you can find a copy!

    I thought of something I should have put in my review. Red-tails are protected now, but they weren’t at the time this was written. They were thought to be pests who ate poultry, and many farmers shot them on sight. But even as early as the Handbook of Nature Study, Comstock is an example of someone working to dispel the myth that all redtails are “chicken hawks.” This book works to dispel that myth too, but it doesn’t come across to me as heavy-handed.

  3. One of my favorite things about sharing books with my children is introducing them to books I loved as a child. Sharing memories and creating memories at the same time!
    This book sounds like a great one to seek out for my children. I am hoping our library system has a copy…

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