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The Red-tailed Hawk sets the standard for raptors

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e  September 2010

Hawk Watching

The Red-tailed Hawk sets the standard for the raptors called buteos.

Story and photos by Jay W. Sharp



The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), in the view of many aficionados, sets the gold standard for the buteos — those medium-sized, sturdy-bodied, broad-winged, fierce-eyed raptors that look, in the face, like the old Hollywood actor Jack Palance on the hunt.

Portrait of a Red-tail Hawk.

According to David Allen Sibley in The Sibley Guide to Birds, the Red-tailed Hawk, from the leading edge of its beak to the tip of its tail feathers, measures about a foot and a half in length, and its extended wings, from tip to tip, span some four feet. It weighs two to three pounds. On average, the male is perhaps one-quarter smaller than the female. It is probably faster although it is less aggressive.

The bird's plumage color and pattern, say authorities C.R. Preston and R.D. Beane in Birds of North America Online, can vary considerably, even within a given population, and "individuals may be broadly classified as light or dark morphs." In New Mexico, says Stan Tekiela in his field guide, Birds of New Mexico, the Red-tail's plumage may vary from nearly all-white to chocolate-brown. Typically, it has a dark head, a lighter-colored breast, a patchy brownish belly band, and — when seen from above — a rufous-colored tail. Its underwing, lighter colored, has a dark band along the trailing edge and a dark patch on the leading edge

An efficiently designed avian predator, the Red-tail has long, symmetrically paired flight feathers at the tips of its wings, facilitating the bird's ability to soar on the thermals above the landscape when it's hunting from the air. It has eyes so sharp that it can see a small mammal a thousand yards away. On each of its powerful feet, it has three needle-sharp talons in front and one behind, giving it the ability to seize, pierce and kill prey. It has a hook-shaped beak, which serves it well when ripping apart the flesh of its prey.

The Red-tailed Hawk produces, repeatedly, a high-pitched rasping scream of several seconds, sounding much like fingernails on a chalkboard. Its screech has been employed as a sound effect by Hollywood, which has used it to signify just about any bird of prey.

Distribution, Habitat and Migrations


The Red-tail, with more than a dozen subspecies, is perhaps the most common and widely distributed hawk in North America. It occurs virtually throughout the continent, from Canada and Alaska southward to Central America and eastward to Caribbean islands. The Red-tail, says National Geographic, prefers "open areas, such as fields or deserts, with high perching places nearby." Since the bird is highly adaptable, it also occupies mountains and tropical rain forests. The hawk has moved into human habitats, too, where it often perches on telephone poles from which it can "take advantage of the open spaces along the roadside to spot and seize mice, ground squirrels, rabbits, reptiles or other prey." It even nests in New York City's high-rise buildings and forages in Central Park.

The Red-tail usually migrates alone or with a small flock from the more northern latitudes and higher elevations to warmer locations during the winter, retracing its route during the spring. Typically, it moves in response to weather-related conditions, especially prolonged snow cover. It maintains year-round residency in the more southern regions — for instance, New Mexico — with permanent occupants and migratory brethren often sharing wintering grounds.



The Red-tailed Hawk "provides a model," say Preston and Beane, "for a highly adaptable, generalist predator." It pursues a diverse diet — feeding, for instance, on medium- to small-sized mammals such as rabbits and rodents; birds such as quail, dove and various waterfowl; reptiles such as lizards and snakes; wetlands wildlife such as fish, turtles, frogs and salamanders; and insects such as beetles, grasshoppers and crickets.

The bird often carries smaller prey such as small mammals or birds to an elevated feeding perch, where it may swallow the mammals whole or where it may behead, pluck and then devour a bird. It typically leaves larger, heavier prey on the ground near the kill site, where it tears apart and eats the flesh.

The bird sometimes pays a price for capturing a dietary prize. For example, observed Preston and Beane, "mammalian prey frequently bite the toes and legs of hawks (especially juveniles); many Red-tails bear scars of these encounters." The bird may also pay with its life. In an 1989 edition of Copeia, the journal of ichthyologists and herpetologists, an author reported seeing "an adult male Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) die with a partially eaten Eastern Coral Snake (Micrurus fulvius) in his talons."

Behavior and Life Cycle


A voracious hunter throughout the day, the Red-tailed Hawk often seeks out an elevated perch — for instance, a tall tree or a power pole — which it uses as a vantage point for surveying the landscape for prey. It may also hunt by flapping its wings and gliding or by soaring above the landscape. It may team up with another Red-tail to chase a squirrel from a tree or a shrub. It may steal food from other hawks. It may snatch prey — for instance, bats emerging from a cave — in mid-flight. Occasionally, it may chase prey, such as snakes and some insects, by hopping awkwardly but determinedly on the ground. It may feed on carrion, sometimes driving away other birds such as crows.

Red-tailed Hawk hunting from the top of a Honey Mesquite, the highest vantage point available in a desert region in southwestern New Mexico.

Diving on prey like an avenging angel, the hawk, said Leslie Day in "The City Naturalist — Red-tailed Hawk," extends its legs fully, and "tendons spread the claws. When it strikes its prey, the legs double up under the force of impact, which automatically clenches the toes and talons. The talons then pierce the vital organs of the victim, causing instant death."

If the Red-tail is a spectacular and ferocious predator, the bird — sexually mature at two years of age — is also a spectacular and elegant lover. In courtship during the spring breeding season, the female shows off by soaring in wide circles at high altitudes. The male, typical of his gender, shows off even more. He not only soars in wide circles, he dives steeply, pulls out, ascends steeply, then repeats the maneuver several times in what ornithologists call a "Sky Dance." The male and female may even clench each other passionately in midflight and spiral toward earth, releasing and pulling out just before impact. The male may try to charm his partner by offering her a delicacy, for instance, a snake, hundreds of feet above the earth's surface.



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