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We have a hunter in our neighborhood. However, this hunter isn’t limited to just our suburban backyards. The hunter can be seen patiently waiting along our largest highways, perched on a few rooftops and window ledges of our largest cities, and quietly gliding above the nation’s farm fields. The hunter is skilled and efficient, using keen eyesight, hearing and speed to successfully capture its prey. What is this natural predator? It’s a Red-tailed Hawk.
Red-tail hawks are the most common and widespread hawk species in North America. Their range includes southern Alaska, most of Canada, the U.S., Mexico and south to Panama. Birds in our area live here year-round, but northern birds will migrate to warmer climates each fall. They prefer a habitat of open fields mixed with forests, with enough large trees for perching and nesting. These hawks are one of the few species that do not seem to be negatively affected by human development, as they can live very close to people if enough food is available. As a matter of fact, one famous urban bird, a male nicknamed “Pale Male” has successfully nested and raised young in New York City’s bustling Manhattan Borough-the first Red-tailed hawk to do so in several decades.
These raptors are classified as buteos (Latin for “Common Buzzard”), characterized by medium to large size bodies, broad wings and short, wide tails. Like most birds of prey they have sharp, hooked beaks and sharp talons (toes) that are used for capturing prey and tearing off meat. The males and females will usually mate for life unless one bird dies. The sexes look alike, although females tend to be about 25% larger than males. The rusty, red-colored tails (where they get their name from) will not show until they reach maturity, around 3 years old.
Many people know this bird of prey as the “chicken hawk,” though they rarely attack chickens. But, if you ask the famous Foghorn Leghorn from the Looney Tunes era, the little hawk is determined to harass the big rooster all over the barnyard! They may not eat chickens, but they’re opportunistic predators that will prey on small mammals, reptiles, and birds. However, as much as 85% of their diet consists of small rodents such as mice, moles, voles, shrews, rats, chipmunks and squirrels. It’s not uncommon to see one of these large hawks perched on top of a telephone pole along a busy highway, scanning the high grass and weeds below for anything that moves. A couple years ago I was entertained one morning at a local park by an adult hawk that was teaching a young bird how to seize a squirrel. As I sat there watching the action, the adult dropped down from a low perch and grabbed the unsuspecting, long-tailed rodent on the ground, as the young Red-tail looked on from a few feet away. The adult did not kill the squirrel however, and would simply drag it over under the juvenile bird, release it, give a high pitched call, and wait to see if the new, young hunter would descend from the tree to do the same. After several attempts, and 15 minutes later, the hunting lesson was over. That squirrel was the luckiest animal I’ve ever seen, escaping in the end to a hole in a nearby oak tree-scared and a bit less furry, but unharmed. I was actually routing for the squirrel in the end!
Red-tails, as they’re commonly referred to, are one of nature’s most important predators. They play a critical role in controlling local rodent populations, and help keep a balance in nature’s fragile food chain. It would be hard for me to imagine not seeing these majestic birds perched on the poles along our roads and highways, or gliding over the local farm field. Hopefully, the Red-tailed hawk will be around for many future generations to observe them hunting in their neighborhoods!