Welcome to another installment of Focus on Nature. In this blog we’ll take a close look at one of nature’s most efficient hunters – the Red Tailed Hawk.
The Red Tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, is a physically impressive bird. Its large size makes it stand out from most other birds in our region with, a wingspan up to 57”. Female hawks tend to be larger than the males. The Red Tailed Hawk is so named because it does have tail feathers that are a brick red on the upper side. These feathers often appear pinkish when viewed from below and sunlit from above as it is commonly viewed. The back of this bird is mostly dark brown, and the underside is buff colored with darker brown and black streaks on the breast.
Red Tailed Hawks may be heard before they are seen. Their piercing, resonating call is an iconic “call of the wild”.
These birds of prey are found in our area year round, and are distributed throughout North and Central America. Humans have created the ideal habitat for them on Long Island. The open grassy areas punctuated by woodlots typical of our suburbs are a perfect hunting ground for Red Tails. Their adaptation to manmade landscapes is evident along our local parkways. If you drive along Northern State Parkway or the Sagtikos Parkway, you are almost certain to be able to observe Red Tailed Hawks. They can be seen perched on the light poles, or soaring overhead. The woodlands bordering these roads provide good nesting locations, and the adjacent light poles provide the perfect overview of the nearby grassy areas the birds like to hunt over. All these factors make parkways a very convenient area for these raptors to make their home.
Red Tailed Hawks hunt either by swooping down on their prey from a high perch, or by cruising overhead and dropping down on prey from the air. A local naturalist related to me having seen a Red Tailed Hawk tearing apart a squirrel nest to get at the occupants. I don’t thing this is a typical hunting technique, but this took place during an especially frigid winter. I think a lack of available prey due to weather conditions probably drove the hawk to take this action.
Their vision is exceptional, and allows them to spy potential prey such as rabbits, mice, squirrels, rats, voles, birds, and reptiles from a great distance. Red Tails use their talons to tackle and kill, and their hooked beak is used to tear the prey into bite sized pieces.
This species mates for life. They build bulky nests on tree limbs in early spring. The female incubates the eggs and protects the young, while the male is out hunting for both his mate and their chicks.
Red Tails are an apex, or top, predator in our area. They have little competition from other animals, with the exception of the Great Horned Owl. The owls hunt at night, and the hawks by day, so they are not competing for food. However the Great Horned owl represents a threat, as it will readily prey on roosting or nesting hawks and their young. The Great Horned Owls do not make their own nests, so they “steal” Red Tailed Hawk nests, usurping the original owners. The hawks, on the other hand, will prey on unguarded owl chicks during the day.
Often times the first indication that a bird of prey such as a hawk is in the area is the raucous sound of the warning calls of Crows or Blue Jays. These and other birds will “mob” raptors if they see them first. Even though the hawk is much larger, once it realizes it is “busted” by a flock of songbirds, it will flee the area and set up shop in a quieter neighborhood. Although it seems odd to see potential prey turn the tables on the predator, if the hawk does not have the element of surprise on it’s side it cannot hunt effectively. So, this dramatic method of self defense by smaller birds usually succeeds.
Red Tailed Hawks are a magnificent symbol of the natural world in our area. I’ve enjoyed watching them riding the currents of wind along the bluffs in Sunken Meadow State Park, as well as at Nissequogue River State Park. As mentioned above, they often can be seen along our local parkways as well. Don’t be surprised if you encounter one in your own yard for that matter. Keep your eyes and ears open and you are sure to encounter this magnificent animal. See you on the trails!