Bird Basics Your Guide to Redtailed Hawks
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Bird Basics Your Guide to Redtailed Hawks

Red-tailed hawks are birds that are all-American, but have a bad reputation.

Through no fault of its own, the red-tailed hawk has become known in the United States as the “chickenhawk”, predators threatening our local farms. Actually, these birds prefer to hunt and eat small mammals like rodents. Rarely do they go after chickens or other birds.

The red-tailed hawk is truly America’s bird, specifically North America. Their natural habitat is right here in the United States, but also going as far north as Canada and as far south as Panama. But while mere humans require coats to survive in Minnesota and good air conditioning to make it through a summer in Houston, these birds have the ability to survive all throughout our continent’s varied climate.

These feisty predators are surprisingly small. While they can reach a height of 26 inches with a wingspan of four to five feet wide, they usually only weigh 2-4 pounds. If you happen to spot a red-tailed hawk that is a bit smaller, chances are you’re looking at a male. For this species, it’s the females who tend to be the larger sex.

Its looks are fitting to its name. Simple as it sounds, red-tailed hawks have tails that are red. They have dark backs with a lighter underbelly and have a dark brown band around their bellies. Their bills are short, dark and hooked and they have yellow legs.

These red-tailed hawks definitely don’t deserve to be called bird brains. Their high intelligence and hunting skills have made these birds popular picks for humans to train for hunting and falconry. However, because these birds are legally protected throughout most of the continent, Falconers are only able to use young red-tailed hawks for training instead of adult birds who, starting at about 2 years old, can breed and help contribute to growing this species’ population. This legal restriction really isn’t much of a problem for Falconers as younger red-tailed hawks are often easier to train than older ones.

These birds mate for life. Generally, red-tailed hawks will only take another mate if their first one has died. Their courtship is a beautiful dance. A male will undertake aerial displays, diving down and soaring back up again. The male will perform this “dance” several times and may even grab the female’s talons with his talons.

Other interesting tidbits about red-tailed hawks:

• They usually fly at speeds of 20-40 miles per hour, but can go as fast as 120 MPH.

• They are not naturally aggressive against humans or other animals (unless they feel their nest of young is in danger).

• Their cries sound similar to a steam engine whistle. Because they make such a clear and loud sound, recordings of red-tailed hawks are often used in movies to help contribute to a wilderness setting.

Summary: Red-tailed hawks are intelligent hunters that can catch prey twice its own weight. They are impressive birds that live among those of us in North America. They adapt well to our varied climate and can reach impressive speeds. Red-tailed hawks mate for life and are not aggressive unless they are protecting their nests.

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Comments (3)

Very nice article. I have noticed a spike in the number of hawks in our Southeastern PA. In my neighborhood there is a nesting pair and about 6 months ago I saw and adult and 2 young hawks flying together. There are about a thousand squirrels per acre so they have plenty to eat!

The red tail hawks here do eat birds. Any bird feeder is like a hawk fast food drivethru.

Tom Scheib

RTs, if at bird feeders, are usually looking for mice or squirrels that feed upon seed dropped to the ground by feeding bird species. As a licensed falconer I've received numerous photos of RTs at bird feeders with mice and squirrel in their talons------none so far with cardinals, etc.

On the other hand, coopers and sharpshinned hawks will use the bird feeder as a "fast food drivethru".