Red-tailed Hawk

I volunteer some of my time at Cascades Raptor Center here in Eugene. It is a wonderful place to visit and I strongly encourage you to do so whenever you have the opportunity. Raptors are an amazing group of birds and as my first entry to this blog, I decided to use one of my articles about the Red-tailed Hawk.

The Red-tailed Hawk – Our Most Familiar Hawk
Dan Gleason, ©2009

Anyone who has driven the I-5 corridor from Eugene to Portland is probably aware of the many large hawks one can see sitting on fenceposts along the freeway, especially during the fall and winter months. These are nearly all Red-tailed Hawks, our most common large hawk. During the winter, about one out of sixty hawks might be a Rough-legged Hawk, but these birds breed in the Arctic and are only found in our area during the winter.

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most commonly seen hawk all across the country and can be found from central Alaska in the north to as far south as Venezuela. Not only is it the most commonly seen and most widespread raptor, but it probably is also the most numerous, whose total population may well be in excess of 2 million individuals. It generally is a bird of open country but it is highly adaptable and can survive in some forests, especially tropical rainforests. It will likely not be found in suburban backyards but might be seen flying overhead.

It is not a threat to the birds that you feed in your backyard, nor do you need to be concerned about small pets. Red-tailed Hawks favorite food are small rodents or birds such as quail or pheasants. Medium-sized mammals like rabbits may also be taken and snakes also become food when available. Even rattlesnakes are taken when the opportunity presents itself. These hawks are resourceful birds and in some places, a few individuals have even found some unusual sources of food. In Bracken Cave in Texas, tens of thousands of Mexican Free-tailed Bats emerge from the cave every evening. Some Red-tailed Hawks have learned to await this pre-dusk emergence. As the bats fly out, a hawk will swoop into the group of bats and snatch one in mid-flight. This seems like a small moving target for such a large hawk to take, and we might assume these hawks are not highly maneuverable, but they are able to pursue prey even above the canopy in tropical rainforests.

The name, Red-tailed Hawk, refers to the color of the tail in adult birds. It is not bright red but a rusty-red and a bird must be at least two years old to begin showing any red color on the tail. Younger birds show banding on the tail. The plumage is highly variable, more so than in any other North American raptor: some birds are very pale and some are nearly black. In most plumage variations, the red tail is still visible as is a very white breast color, but a few individuals even lack these traits. I have seen Red-tailed Hawks that were almost completely jet black with only a hint of red at the base of the tail. These are certainly very striking birds but not ones commonly seen.

You will generally see Red-tailed Hawks sitting on a fence post, tree branch or other prominent perch scanning the ground for potential prey, or soaring high overhead as they ride the thermals and rising air currents. Their broad wings allow them to hang nearly motionless in mid-air with only an occasional flap of the wings.

However, during the breeding season, aerial displays can be quite spectacular. In courtship, males may fly high above the female then suddenly enter into a steep dive. He may then pull up and rise just as steeply over the female or dive below her before turning upward again. Such dives can be repeated many times. But keep watching, and you may see something even more spectacular. Eventually, the male may make contact with the female, touching her back or even grasping her beak, as she soars in the air. Both birds might then begin to circle together, often with their legs dangling. But it is even more impressive when each bird reaches out to the other bird with their feet. Soon, talons may lock together and both birds fall from the sky tumbling or in slow, steady circles with talons interlocked. They will separate before hitting the ground, regaining altitude and sometimes repeating the display several moments later.

Once nesting has started, the male will often bring food to his mate, and he will do most of the hunting once the eggs have hatched. He may bring the food directly to the nest or sometimes, he will fly over the nest area calling to his mate, encouraging her to leave the nest and fly up to greet him. As she flies toward him, he may drop his kill for her to snatch from the air below him. With food thus exchanged, she returns to the nest and feeds the growing young. Once a pair-bond has become established, the two hawks will usually remain together throughout life and re-mate year after year. Only when one individual dies does the other seek a new mate.

For centuries, hawks of all kinds have been revered as symbols of strength and power. But, unfortunately, they have also too often been persecuted through fear or ignorance. They are important members of a healthy ecosystem and play a vital role in controlling populations of many small rodents. Killing these birds or even possessing any of their feathers is strictly forbidden by Federal law, but if you and your family take the time to learn about them, watching them in action and admiring them, I’m sure that any desire to bring them harm will disappear. For a chance to really see them closely and admire their beauty, I strongly suggest a visit to Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene or another similar rehabilitation/educational facility. There you can see the birds up close and come and learn more about their habits. A Red-tailed Hawk close at hand or circling high over your head will leave an impression of something noble and admirable.

As winter approaches here in the Willamette Valley, the number of Red-tailed Hawks will increase as birds begin to move down from the north. Over the summer, their food base has also increased and the open fields and grassy corridors along our highways makes for good hunting opportunities. So on your next journey along I-5, count how many Red-tailed Hawks you see sitting along the edge and appreciate their hunting skills and the great good that they all do for us.

[Story and photo, Dan Gleason ©2009]

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