Red-tailed Hawk

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on some wood in Tucson, Arizona -- berichard 2009

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on some wood in Tucson, Arizona — berichard 2009

I see the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) just about every day. They are a welcome sight while I drive to school in the morning, and when I get lunch later on. They are found through nearly all of North America, though they tolerate Canada mostly in the summer, and some parts of Central America only in winter[1]. National Geographic says that they are also found in the West Indies, and were first studied in Jamaica[2]! This surprised me, because I am used to seeing them in really dry areas with dormant grass. You can see this influence in their specific epithet “jamaicensis”. (A species name is made of the Genus + specific epithet. )

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post in Clovis, CA -- Kfearnside 2011

A Red-tailed Hawk perched on a fence post in Clovis, CA — Kfearnside 2011

These beautiful birds usually prefer to perch high up (I often see them on telephone poles and streetlights along the freeway) where they can look down onto an open field. In more natural areas, they choose trees instead. Their habitats can be really varied, but are usually quite open so that they can watch for prey below. They range from arid deserts and scrublands, to grasslands and fields, open woodland and human areas like along roads and parks[2]. In Mexico they can apparently be found in the tropical rainforest[3].

Red-tailed Hawks are so named for their rusty red tail feathers. They have several morphs, but the most common (that I see) look mottled brown from above, and pale white from below. Some of the rusty red can be found in their face. Juvenile birds have black horizontal bars on their tail that fade as they age[1].

An immature Red-tailed Hawk at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. -- Jason Crotty 2011

An immature Red-tailed Hawk at Pillar Point Harbor, CA. — Jason Crotty 2011

They can be recognized in the front by their belly band, a section of feathers across their belly that isn’t a strict line as much as a roughly linear area with brown-tipped feathers. The underside of their wings is mostly pale, but there is a dark line along their humerus (shoulder to elbow). Their beak is yellow with a black tip, which matches their feet (the tips in this case are their sharp talons).

Lovely view of a Red-tailed Hawk from below, in Anza Borrego Desert. The dark band on their humerus can be seen clearly.  -- Alan Vernon 2005

Lovely view of a Red-tailed Hawk from below, in Anza Borrego Desert. The dark band on their humerus can be seen clearly. — Alan Vernon 2005

Their two morphs are “Dark-phase” which are entirely brown with the characteristic red tail, and “Rufous-phase” which have a red face and chest, with a brown belly. This can also be called light / dark / rufous morph.

They are one of the largest hawks in North America. They stand between 18-26in (45-65cm) tall, with a wingspan that spreads from 38-48in (1.1-1.3m)[3][4]. This makes them easy to spot in the sky. However, birds are very light compared to similar-sized mammals, and the largest might only weigh 3.5lb (1600g). At the smaller end, they are 1.5lb (690g). Their sexual dimorphisism is apparent in size rather than colors, as females can be 25% larger than males[5].

Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Primary feathers are spread separately to add additional lift.  -- berichard 2009

Red-tailed Hawk soaring. Primary feathers are spread separately to add additional lift. — berichard 2009

Their wings are very broad (front to back) and rounded, and their primaries are often spread apart at the ends to give them extra lift. This shape allows them to soar on updrafts of warm air without expending a lot of energy. Their tail is fairly short and can be spread wide (side-to-side) as well.

They are also capable of ‘hovering’, in a sense. This is not true hovering like a hummingbird can do. However, they can face into a fast wind with their wings held just so, allowing them to stay in one spot in the air from which they can watch for their prey. This seems like quite a feat! Sometimes I can see this behavior on a really windy day, if I am lucky. They have to adjust a little here and there, then suddenly they will dive to the ground. They aren’t as specialized for diving as a falcon, but they are certainly good enough.

Their powerful talons display their role as a carnivore. The hook on the end of their beak also helps them tear into their meal. They mostly eat small mammals, like mice, rabbits and squirrels, but also reptiles and anything else they can find that they think they can kill.

Red-tailed Hawk eating a rabbit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. -- Rhys A. 2011

Red-tailed Hawk eating a rabbit near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. — Rhys A. 2011

These amazing birds catch their prey by climbing into the air, then swooping toward it to kill with their powerful talons. If they don’t die immediately, they can use their talons or beak as deadly weapons. While I don’t take pleasure in death, it is definitely amazing how they can speed from high in the air and actually hit a small target on the ground. Hopefully, this means a mercifully quick death for their prey.

Red-tailed Hawk diving for prey at Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, CA. -- Sivaprasad R.L. 2007

Red-tailed Hawk diving for prey at Bluff Top Coastal Park, Half Moon Bay, CA. — Sivaprasad R.L. 2007

Their ability to fly also comes to play in their courtship rituals. The hawks that migrate usually court during late Winter and early Spring, while those that don’t migate (sedentary birds) can court year-round, though mostly in early Spring[6]. Both the male and female will fly high in wide circles. Then the male will dive sharply, then return to her, and repeats this a few times. They might also hold talons and spiral near the ground, before they fly apart. [2][3] If the female is impressed by the male, they will mate. The male climbs onto the female’s back and touches their cloacae together. (The cloaca is a bird’s combination waste and reproductive chamber.)

Eggs collected by Henry David Thoreau in the Natural History Museum, Boston. Those on the right belong to a Red-tailed Hawk. -- Boston Society of Natural History 1930

Eggs collected by Henry David Thoreau in the Natural History Museum, Boston. Those on the right belong to a Red-tailed Hawk. — Boston Society of Natural History 1930

Red-tailed Hawks mate for life once they find their partner[2]. They stay in the same territory and can be seen hunting together[3]. They breed in a variety of locations on the continent[5], but they nest in mostly the same way. The pair will find a high point like a rock ledge or a tree, and make a nest of sticks lined with shredded bark and some fresh vegetation[2][4]. They might re-use a nest that they built in a previous year. This can be up to 6.5ft (2m) high and 3ft (0.9m) across and take a week to build[3]. The female lays 1-5[2][3] or 2-3[4] eggs in their nest. The eggs are white with spots that can be brown or sometimes purple[3][4]. I would guess it would be a dark purple, though I can’t find any pictures.

A peek into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with two chicks in Braintree, Massachusetts. -- Thomas O’Neil 2006

A peek into the nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with two chicks in Braintree, Massachusetts. — Thomas O’Neil 2006

The pair will share nesting duties for 4-5 weeks[2]. They will fiercely protect their nest, and chase off anything threatening, including larger birds like eagles and Great Horned Owls (Bubo virginianus). When the chicks hatch, they weigh only around 2oz (57g). They are helpless and bald.[3] The parents hunt and feed the young while they grow larger, their feathers bloom, and they learn to fly. The chicks leave the nest at about 6 weeks old when they are able to catch their own prey[2]. Sometimes the offspring stay up to 6 months after fledging around the nest. They will be able to breed themselves at 1 year old, but usually are successful after 2 years old. [6]

Two Red-tailed hawk chicks still growing feathers in their nest near Tule Lake, CA. A third chick reported, but only beak visible. -- Alan Vernon 2010

Two Red-tailed hawk chicks still growing feathers in their nest near Tule Lake, CA. A third chick reported, but only beak visible. — Alan Vernon 2010

Red-tailed Hawks are considered a partial migrant, which means that some migrate and some don’t. Often the birds in southern Canada will migrate South during the Winter, though experienced hawks may stay while juveniles are the first to leave. Those in most of the US live in more temperate areas and stay put through the whole year. They often take advantage of good weather while they travel, favoring areas with good updrafts while avoiding large bodies of water that require more work to fly over. [6]

These magnificent birds are a great reminder of the power of nature. They look elegant in the air, and have very dangerous appendages. They are protective parents and loyal mates. When given the chance, I love to simply watch them soar. It can bring a sense of peace, as they work with the air currents to get them where they need to go. It is a good reminder that we don’t need to constantly fight against everything to be powerful or masculine or independent.

It can simply be a matter of learning how to adjust to the situations and doing well in them, regardless of how that must be done. It might be as simple as a slight adjustment of a feather or as abrupt as a dive, but it is really about doing what is needed at a given time. You don’t have to respond heavily with shouting and anger, for example, when perhaps taking the time to clarify a misunderstanding will do.

Regardless, the Red-tailed Hawk cares not for our squabbles. They will continue to dominate the skies for many years to come, thanks to their wonderful traits and ability to adapt even to human land uses.

A Red-tailed Hawk in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Nebraska -- MONGO 2008

A Red-tailed Hawk in the Chalco Hills Recreation Area, Nebraska — MONGO 2008

1. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-Tailed_Hawk/id

2. http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/birds/red-tailed-hawk/

3. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-Tailed_Hawk/lifehistory

4. http://birds.audubon.org/birds/red-tailed-hawk

5. http://eol.org/pages/1049057/details

6. http://www.hawkmountain.org/raptorpedia/hawks-at-hawk-mountain/hawk-species-at-hawk-mountain/red-tailed-hawk/page.aspx?id=460

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