Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Native Species Profile -Red-tailed Hawk

One of the things that I like to do while driving is to count the number of hawks and other raptors that I see.  This weekend I drove down one stretch and in ten miles I counted eight hawks.  I see raptors ranging in size from the American Kestrel (Falco sparverius) to the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), and once a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) - this was very exciting.  The single most common raptor that I see while driving is the Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

It should not be a surprise that I see more Red-Tailed Hawks than any other raptor; the species is found throughout North America from central Alaska and northern Canada south into Central America and the Caribbean.  Mid-Michigan can be a hot-spot for seeing these birds in the winter.  The region has a year-round population and birds that migrate from further north often stop here for the winter.

Right now it is not unusual to see pairs of hawks perched near each other.  They are beginning courtship for the upcoming nesting season.  If you do see a pair of birds it is usually easy to identify the male and the female.  In Red-tailed Hawks, as in most raptors, the female is larger than the male.  Their size is deceptive, even though a large female Red-Tailed Hawk may have a wingspan of over 4 feet it will only weigh a little more than three pounds.

Red-tailed Hawk (March 2010)
The bird in this photo shows the typical color pattern of a Red-Tailed Hawk: brown above with a white belly and chest with streaks of brown.  The brick red tail that gives the species its name is plainly visible.  The bird's heavy hooked beak identifies it as a raptor, as do the long toes and sharp talons that it uses to catch its prey.

The Red-Tailed Hawk always seems to have a very intense glare.  Birds are unable to move their eyes, so their gaze is fixed in one direction.  Like other raptors, the Red-tailed Hawk's eyes point straight ahead giving it binocular vision (meaning it has excellent depth perception just like humans).  Adding to the intensity of its stare, the Red-Tailed Hawk's eyes are shaded by strong eyebrows - allowing them to see while flying directly toward the sun. These brows make the hawk look like it is scowling and unhappy.

When a Red-Tailed Hawk stares at you it can be a very uncomfortable feeling. It seems like the bird is sizing you up and determining whether you can be made into a meal or not.  There is no danger of this.  The Red-Tailed Hawk eats small mammal such as mice and rabbits, birds, reptiles such as snakes, and sometimes carrion.

The bird in this photo was one of a pair that was seen frequently seen hunting and perching near my office over the course of several year.  This photograph was actually taken on a spruce tree on the north border of our building's parking lot.

Basic Information

Red-tailed Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis

Habitat:  prefers mixed habitats with open areas for hunting and woodlands for perching and nesting, found in most habitats in North America except the Arctic tundra

Size:  18 - 25.5 inches long with a 45 - 52 inch wingspan, females are typically larger than males

Diet:  small mammals, birds, reptiles, carrion

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