Friday, August 17, 2012

Why Red-Tailed Hawks Are Awesome!

With the critical care cages at the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program steadily filling with sick and injured birds (it is the peak of busy season, after all) it's hard not to notice that a large portion of the newcomers are Red-Tailed Hawks.  This year's kids are all fledged and living life on their own, but not all of them are proving successful.  The summer's early drought in combination with the High Park Fire effects and the perfect climatic conditions for mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus have created a difficult first year for a lot of birds.  Along with Swainson's Hawks, American Kestrels, and Great Horned Owls, the Red-Tailed Hawks are having a noticeably hard time of it.  So, with cages of sick Red-Tailed Hawks in the RMRP's care, what better time to write about how amazing they are?  Maybe the extra attention to their awesomeness will help bolster their spirits and make them well again.

You know what a Red-Tailed Hawk looks like, even if you don't realize it.  They're the hawks that you see soaring high above fields and hills while looking for lunch, or perched on a telephone pole scanning the ground for dinner.  Admittedly, there are many species of hawks that soar and perch on power poles, but Red-Tails are among the most common.
You've probably also noticed their namesake red tail at some point as it catches the sun mid-flight.  But did you know that immature Red-Tailed Hawks don't have a red tail until they're adults?  Until the bird is in its second year, the tail is gray with dark brown bars.  And because raptors don't drop all their feathers at once when they molt, the new red tail comes in one or two feathers at a time, so sometimes their tails look like this:
Harlan's Hawk from
There are many variants of the Red-Tailed Hawk, including the Harlan's Hawk, which is such a strikingly different variant that some Humans consider it a separate species altogether.  Harlan's Hawks have blackish and white patterned feathers, variations in their tail coloration, and even have shorter primary flight feathers than other Red-Tailed Hawks.  For more pictures of Harlan's Hawks in Colorado click here.

Another famous thing about Red-Tailed Hawks is their call, but you may not have known who you were listening to.  The most common raptor noise in movies and on TV is the call of the Red-Tailed Hawk, but it's usually played in the movie when a Bald Eagle is on screen, or when a Turkey Vulture is seen hovering over a dying cowboy (also inaccurate).  In fact, there are so many comical misuses of the Red-Tailed Hawk's call that I have decided right now to write an entire separate article about it, so stay tuned!  I promise it will be funny and educational.

Educational Red-Tailed Hawk at the RMRP
Red-Tailed Hawks are not as big as Ferruginous Hawks, but they are still pretty big, and like most raptors the females are about 30% bigger than males.  Generally speaking, Red-Tailed Hawks weigh 2-4 pounds, and have a wingspan of about 4 feet.

Another reason they're pretty well-known is because they live all over North America.  Seriously.  You'd be hard pressed to travel anywhere on this continent and not find Red-Tailed Hawks.  They're almost as ubiquitous in North America as the Peregrine Falcon, but not quite.  Red-Tails live in every sort of ecosystem except continuous forest (they leave that to forest-dwellers like Goshawks) and the Arctic.  But everywhere else, from tropical islands to the Grand Canyon, you can find Red-Tails.  In fact, the densest population of these birds is in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

Red-Tailed Hawks primarily eat rodents and other small mammals, but they'll also snack on birds (especially pigeons in cities) and snakes.  In fact, the Red-Tailed Hawk has a super-cool way of hunting poisonous rattlesnakes.  They spread their wings and tempt the snake with their feathers, kind of like a matador taunting a bull with a red cape.  When the snake strikes at the wing feathers, the bird reaches in with a foot and grabs the snake.  The National Geographic video below shows the matador move, and although they missed any footage of the snake striking at the wings, it's still cool to watch.

A few other facts that don't require an entire paragraph:

  • They're monogamous, only finding a new mate when their previous mate dies.  
  • Great Horned Owls like me are occasional predators of Red-Tailed Hawks, but not the other way around (that's right, I'm the top of the food chain).  
  • They're also known as chickenhawks, even though they're not very well known for hunting chickens.

Although nothing much is happening these days, the Cornell Red-Tailed Hawk Webcam is an excellent way to get a closer look at these birds.  Cornell installed two HD webcams at the Red-Tail nest on their campus, and you can tune in any time during breeding season to watch the male and female hawks build their nest, lay the eggs, incubate them, hatch them, and then raise and fledge the chicks.  Be sure to check it out next season!

The Humans at the RMRP admit dozens of Red-Tailed Hawks every year.  Many of them come in hit by cars, shocked on power lines, or [this year] sick with West Nile Virus.  Please send healing thoughts to those birds currently in the RMRP's care!  If you would like to support the care of these incredible birds, click the "Donate Now" link on the right side-bar!
Educational Red-Tailed Hawk for the RMRP
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1 comment:

  1. Hi there. I live in Toronto, and recently, my wife, Jean, and I came upon an adult Red-tailed Hawk in Markham, Ontario. We have read that stalking a hawk is no easy task,that you have to sneak up on them when they are looking the other way. Well, this Hawk was only looking one way when it landed, and that was right at us! Fortunately, we had our camera with us and got some good pictures and video. We have posted them for anyone interested at:

    Two weeks ago today, we sighted our first ever Saw-Whet Owl. What a beautiful bird. We have posted our pictures and video at: