Red-tailed Hawk by William E. Davis, Jr.
Red-tailed Hawk by Barry Van Dusen
An artist who has created many of our covers, Barry Van Dusen, lives in Princeton, Massachusetts, and is well known in the birding world. Barry has illustrated several nature books and pocket guides, and his articles and paintings have been featured in Birding, Bird Watcher’s Digest, and Yankee Magazine as well as Bird Observer. Barry’s interest in nature subjects began in 1982 with an association with the Massachusetts Audubon Society. He has been influenced by the work of European wildlife artists and has adopted their methodology of direct field sketching. Barry teaches workshops at various locations in Massachusetts. For more information, visit Barry’s website.
The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) with its highly variable plumage characteristics, is one of the most common and widespread hawks in North America. In the eastern United States and Canada, adults of the subspecies B. j. borealis are sturdy, relatively short tailed, and easily identified by their red tails and white chests. The sexes have similar plumage: dark heads, brown mottled with white above, and pale below, usually with dark striping and barring across the belly. Juveniles have finely-barred gray tails and in flight show dark, patagial bars on the leading edge of their wings. Juveniles can be discerned from young Broad-winged Hawks by the latter’s smaller size, more pointed wings, and dark borders to the underside of their wings.
There are 14 to 16 Red-tailed Hawk subspecies, several of which exhibit distinctive plumage. For example, Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawks (B. j. harlani) are typically black and white instead of brown, and adults have gray tails; ranging from Alaska to British Columbia, they are migratory and winter in the central United States as far south as Texas. Krider’s Red-tailed Hawks (B. j. kriderii) are pale and lack the usual striped belly, but adults have a pale red tail; they are found in the prairie states of the United States and Canada. The western Red-Tail subspecies (B. j. calurus) exhibits both light-dark plumage polymorphism, however adults of both morphs have red tails.
The breeding rage of the Red-tailed Hawk extends from Alaska across Canada to Nova Scotia and encompasses virtually all of the territorial United States and northern Mexico, with resident populations also occurring south to Cuba, Jamaica, Dominica, and Central America. Northern populations, including those of northern New England and the prairie regions of the western states, are migratory and join southern resident birds farther south. In Massachusetts, the Red-tailed Hawk is considered a fairly common winter resident and a widespread breeder.
Red-tails are monogamous and resident pairs stay together throughout the year. The typical vocalization is a hoarse scream kee-eeee-arrr, lasting several seconds and often given while soaring. Courtship flights involve both the male and female flying in circles, often with legs dangling, with the male diving and ascending, sometimes touching the female or feeding her in flight. The courtship flight call is a shrill chwirk. Soaring may also serve as territorial advertisement, a search for prey, or for exploration. Red-tails are highly territorial in breeding season and will sometimes attack intruders, chasing and sometimes even grappling with them.
Red-tailed Hawks prefer open areas with scattered trees. They are commonly seen perched on trees, telephone poles, or fence posts–especially in winter–where their posture has been compared to a football player slumped on the bench in the rain. A Red-tail nest is usually in the crown of a tall tree, in Massachusetts often in a white pine. Nesting may begin in March when pairs often search for and refurbish several old nests, eventually choosing one, which they line with bark and sprigs of vegetation. The nest is built or refurbished by both birds and consists of a platform of sticks and twigs with a central depression. The usual clutch is two or three white eggs. Both parents incubate, but the female does the bulk of the work for the four-to-five weeks until hatching. The male brings the female most of her food during incubation. The young are altricial—helpless with closed eyes upon hatching. The female broods the chicks for about six weeks until fledging; the young may stay near the nest for another three weeks until sustained flight occurs. The male brings most of the food for the young birds, but the female feeds them. The adults may feed the young for as long as six to seven weeks after fledging.
Red-tailed Hawks are visual foragers. While the majority of hunting occurs from an elevated perch, they take most of their prey on the ground. When prey is spotted, they flap and glide or glide down on the prey and extend their legs and talons forward when they are about ten feet from contact. They may hunt insects on the ground by hopping and may also hunt by soaring and cruising. They have been known to hunt cooperatively and kleptoparasitize other hawks including other Red-tails. They usually return to a perch to eat but may feed on large prey on the ground, sometimes returning to their kill for several days. Red-tailed Hawks take mainly rodents—mice, voles, rats, rabbits, and squirrels are common prey. They also take reptiles and sometimes even birds during the winter months. Periodically they eject pellets of indigestible materials after eating.
Red-tailed Hawks are sometimes killed by Great Horned Owls, but humans are a major cause of death due to shooting, trapping, and collisions with motor vehicles. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, eastern populations were depressed by bounty shooting and other human persecution, habitat alteration, and—during the DDT era—eggshell thinning. Protected during the latter half of the 20th century, the Red-tailed Hawk has recovered and expanded its range to the point of largely replacing the Red-shouldered Hawk in much of the East. Nest site and prey availability probably limit Red-tail populations today. However, with its vast geographic range, the Red-tailed Hawk appears to be secure.
William E. Davis, Jr.