Red-tailed hawk

Red-tailed hawks can live to be 30 years old. (Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation)

The white branches of the big sycamore looked like outstretched, bleached arms held up against the azure sky. On an upper branch, a big raptor perched upright and motionless. Just below, an even bigger bird completed the static scene.

It was early April, and the nation was dealing with a surge in coronavirus infections. My worries were temporarily interrupted by this pair of red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis). They were quiet now but would soon be busy, as new parents always are.

We tend to think of red-tails as solitary creatures because we ordinarily see them alone, perched on a fence post or soaring high over fields or parks. The reality is quite different. Every spring, these impressive hawks re-establish bonds with their lifelong partners. Red-tails can live to be 30 years old. Only death breaks their bond. Nevertheless, every year the male courts his mate anew. He flies high above the female, suddenly diving straight down before a dramatic turn brings him back to his original position. He repeats these “stoops” several times, ending by gently touching the back of the female with his talons.

The red-tails in the sycamore will likely nest nearby in the tall trees at the edge of our community’s picturesque campus. Just beyond, the county’s Regent Forest Park provides a protective buffer.

Red-tails are the most common hawks in North America. They live year-round across the United States, Mexico and parts of the Caribbean. A small percentage lives in Central America. A portion of the U.S. population annually ventures into Canada and Alaska to breed.

In the Chesapeake Bay region, most red-tails begin to court in May. Both parents incubate the two or three eggs for a month. The chicks hatch in July, but it takes another six weeks before the birds fledge. Even though they are adult-size, the youngsters will spend the rest of the year near their parents, periodically begging for food.

As with most raptors, red-tail females are noticeably bigger than their mates. Some ornithologists speculate the extra size is needed to help the female through the rigors of egg-laying, brooding and parenting. But the male is responsible for supplementing the diet of his mate as well as being the sole source of food for the newborn chicks. In truth, the demands are heavy on both parents.

The red-tail is a carnivore, but it is also a generalist in food selection. Voles and mice are its dietary mainstays. But these hawks also eat rabbits, squirrels, birds, reptiles, amphibians, arthropods and fresh carrion. In the West, red-tails eat prairie dogs, ferrets and other small and medium-size mammals.

Red-tails are buteos, a group of raptors characterized by large, rounded wings and short tails. The anatomy is ideally suited for soaring. Using their tails as rudders, the birds navigate the skies with ease. They use their extraordinary eyesight to locate prey scampering through the landscape below. Red-tails often land adjacent to their prey and then pounce.

Most red-tail hunting is not done on the wing. Typically, the hawk finds a high perch and waits patiently for its next meal to appear. A sudden dive follows, and the creature below is dispatched with speed and lethal skill.

Open landscapes are this hawk’s milieu. You’ll see them on fence posts overlooking a farm field, on a telephone pole looking out on a meadow or even in a sycamore tree watching the open spaces around a retirement community. In the desert Southwest, red-tails perch on a saguaro cacti. In New York City, a pair of red-tails became celebrities as they took up residence on a high ledge of an apartment building overlooking Central Park. In 1999, the book Red-Tails in Love celebrated the pair.

Red-tailed hawks of the eastern U.S. are easy to describe. The pair I saw were brown above and mostly white underneath except for a “belly band” of brown feathers. The sexes look alike, and both sport gorgeous red tails.

That said, there are more than a dozen other subspecies of red-tails, and they represent huge variability in coloring. Some are extremely pale, almost white. Others are quite dark and have no discernable belly band. Some don’t even have red tails. The variability in plumage is matched by the variety of landscapes the birds inhabit. The success of the species derives in large part from its adaptability.

Today, I wait for signs of another successful red-tail nest here near my home. All around us, development is roaring ahead with new housing and retail stores. Fields that used to support voles and rabbits and mice are now covered with buildings and parking lots. Even here in my neighborhood, an oasis of trees and meadows and lawns, there are plans for expansion.

Will our red-tails find enough food in this increasingly paved-over landscape? Will they adapt fast enough to survive in a rapidly warming world? Red-tails are remarkably resilient, so perhaps mice at the dumpster will replace voles in the field. Pigeons may supplant songbirds. The hawks, I pray, will adapt.

I’ll be watching for that nest, looking for the next generation, hoping the red-tails’ powerful wings will lift my hopes, finding a way in turbulent times. 

Mike Burke, a Bay Journal columnist, is an amateur naturalist based in Maryland, having retired from a career that toggled between Capitol Hill and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

(1) comment

BSmith

Thank you Mike. I did not know redtails mate 4 life, and live so long. Also, they can have color morphs(!). I am greatful 4 your faithful, informative bird columns. Thanks thanks thanks.

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