Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Red-Tailed Hawks: Sharp-Eyed Raptors

    If you have driven along a road that has a mix of field, meadows, and forest, you have probably passed a red-tailed hawk. This fierce raptor is common across North America.  Today, people enjoy looking for red-tailed hawks and watching their yearly migration. It’s hard to believe that farmers killed these birds as pests just 100 years ago.

Physical Characteristics

    What do red-tailed hawks look like? Like many other hawks, they are large birds. They have sharp, hooked beaks that they use to tear apart prey. The sharp talons at the ends of their toes are their main weapons. Each foot has four toes, with three facing forward and one facing back.
A red-tailed hawk looks for prey on the edge of a field.
    Red-tailed hawks have darker feathers on the top, and have light chests streaked with brown. But their appearance can vary across locations. These different looks are called morphs. Red-tailed hawks have a light morph, a dark morph, and an intermediate morph. But all red-tailed hawks have a tail that is brick red on the top and pinkish to rusty red on the bottom.


    Red-tailed hawks are adaptable birds, and do well in many different environments. They can live in deserts, along shorelines, and in meadows. What red-tailed hawks like best is an area that has lots of small rodents, like mice and voles, and a high perch. The red-tailed hawk can sit on the perch to watch for prey.
    Do red-tailed hawks migrate? Some do, and some don’t. Red-tailed hawks with good territory and lots of food will probably stay where they are all winter long. But hawks without prime territory, especially younger hawks, often migrate south for the winter. At Hawk Mountain, a bird sanctuary in Pennsylvania, more than 3,000 red-tailed hawks are spotted migrating south each autumn. Some go as far as South America, but others fly just south of the snow line.
A red-tailed hawk in a field.

Feeding Habits

    Red-tailed hawks are adaptable hunters that can hunt many different kinds of prey. They can live close to humans. After all, settled areas like farm fields and yards often have plenty of mice and rats. Red-tailed hawks have also been seen eating snakes, insects, and squirrels.
    In the past, farmers considered these hawks to be pests. Because they are frequently seen around farm fields, farmers thought that they were eating chickens. Red-tailed hawks were commonly called “chickenhawks”, and many farmers shot or trapped the raptors. However, scientists have found that few red-tailed hawks prey on farm chickens. In fact, red-tailed hawks are much more likely to help a farmer by eating farm pests. Today, farmers value red-tailed hawks and are glad to see them in the fields.

Amazing Hawks

    Red-tailed hawks are fast. While they can’t reach the 200 miles per hour of the peregrine falcon, they have been clocked flying at 120 miles per hour. This speed allows them to capture their prey.
    These hawks have amazing eyesight. Some scientists estimate that they can see five to eight times better than people can. Like people, red-tails can see colors. Their eyes also have colored oils that refract light, causing some colors, like blue and green, to be filtered. This helps the hawks to see the brown and gray colors of their prey more clearly against green grass and fields.

    The next time you happen to ride by meadows and fields, look in the trees. Look at the fence posts and telephone poles. Maybe you’ll see a red-tailed hawk, searching the field for its prey.

Text and photos by Emily Kissner. All rights reserved.