Red Tail Hawk
Hawks are carnivores (meat eaters) who
belong to the category of birds known as raptors -- birds of prey. They
have strong, hooked beaks; their feet have three toes pointed forward and
one turned back; and their claws, or talons, are long, curved and very
sharp. Prey is killed with the long talons and, if it is too large to
swallow whole, it is torn to bite-sized pieces with the hawk's
Since the beginning of recorded history, birds of prey have
been both despised and revered. The sport of falconry -- using raptors as
hunting aids -- has been practiced in Asia and Egypt since 3000 B.C. Yet,
until recent years, birds of prey have also been ruthlessly destroyed
because of real or imagined competition with humans for game and
Based on general body shape and flight habits, hawks are classified
into three different groups (genus): the Accipiters, the Falcons and the
The Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Cooper's Hawk and the Goshawk
are Accipiters. They have long tails and short, rounded wings that enable
them to dart through and around trees in pursuit of other birds, their
principal prey. Typically, they fly low with a series of rapid wing beats
followed by a brief period of sailing, then another series of wing beats.
Accipiters are associated with brush and timbered areas.
prefer open country. They include the Prairie Falcon, the Peregrine Falcon
(Duck Hawk), the Merlin (Pigeon Hawk), and the dainty little American
Kestrel, also called the Sparrow Hawk.
Falcons have a streamlined
body, long, pointed wings and long tails. A series of strong, rapid wing
beats gives them extremely fast flight in open country, and their
swiftness allows them to overtake and capture other birds on the
The American Kestrel is the smallest of our hawks and feeds
mainly on mice and insects. It is the only one of the falcons that hovers
over its intended prey. Because of its habitat and range, it is also the
only Falcon or Accipiter that most people are likely to see.
Buteos are the largest of the hawks. They are the broad-winged,
broad-tailed soaring hawks that are more readily seen because of their
habit of circling high in the air or perching in dead trees or on
telephone poles along the road. In California they include the Red-tailed,
the Red-shouldered, the Swainson's, the Rough-legged and the Ferruginous
Because of its abundance and wide distribution, the Red-tailed Hawk is
the Buteos most commonly seen in California. Its shrill, rasping cry
attracts attention as it circles high overhead or perches on the dead limb
of a tree near the road.
The adult Red-tailed Hawk is easily
identified, for when it leaves its perch on slow, measured wing beats, or
turns while soaring overhead, the broad, rounded tail shows a rich, russet
red, hence the name. The Red-tail is our largest hawk. As with most
raptors, the female is nearly 1/3 larger than the male and may have a wing
span of 56 inches.
Adult Red-tails may be found in California
throughout the year. Although not truly migratory, they do adjust
seasonally to areas of the most abundant prey. The appearance of a pair of
Red-tails in a community should be welcomed, for this big bird is one of
our most beneficial hawks.
There is conclusive evidence now that 85
to 90 percent of their diet is composed of small rodents. They take an
occasional bird and infrequently snakes and other small reptiles, but for
the most part, they survive on rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, mice
and other small rodents.
Red-Tailed Life Cycle
Mating and nest building begin in early spring, usually in March. This
is accompanied by spectacular aerial displays by both males and females.
Circling and soaring to great heights, they fold their wings and plummet
to treetop level, repeating this display as much as five or six
Nests are located from 35 to 75 feet high in the forks of
large trees. The nest is large, flat, shallow and made of sticks and twigs
about 1/2 inch in diameter. Both males and females assist in nest
construction. Nest sites may be used from year to year, since there is
strong evidence that hawks mate for life. If the old nest is wind damaged,
layers of new nesting material are added each year.
usually lays 2 dull-white to bluish-white eggs that are marked with a
variety of irregular reddish spots and splotches. Incubation takes 28 days
and is maintained almost entirely by the female. During this period the
male hunts for both of them, bringing her food to the nest.
When hatched, the young are covered with white down. They grow slowly and
require much food, which keeps both parents busy. They remain in the nest
for up to 48 days. During the last 10 days or so the young, which now
appear as large as the parent birds, practice flapping their wings and
balancing in the wind on the edge of the nest, preparing for the days when
they will launch themselves into the air.
Because of their
inexperience hunting, juvenile birds may be seen eating road-killed
animals. They may even kill chickens, and despite this rare occurrence,
the Red-tail is known throughout the country as a "chicken hawk." As a
consequence, dead hawks hanging from fences and lying under trees and
power poles are mute evidence that shooters, not understanding the
economic or esthetic importance of raptors, or perhaps unaware of
protective laws, still kill them indiscriminately. In the rare case of an
individual raptor or hawk that engages in active predation on domestic
birds or animals, such a bird may be judiciously removed in accordance
with current regulations.
In California, all raptors are protected
by state and federal laws. Not only do raptors play an important role in
the control of small destructive rodents, they are a constant source of
interest and beauty from the flight of the smallest little American
Kestrel hovering over a grasshopper or mouse, to the bold and rapacious
flight of a Goshawk in pursuit of its prey.