Red Tail Hawk

The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a bird of prey known in the United States as the "chickenhawk," though it rarely preys on standard-sized chickens. All Buteo species are to some extent opportunistic when it comes to hunting, and prey on almost any type of small animal as it becomes available to them. However, most have a strong preference for small mammals, mostly rodents.  

It breeds throughout most of North America, from western Alaska and northern Canada to as far south as Panama. It is one of the largest members of the genus Buteo in North America, typically weighing from 690 to 1,600 g (1.5 to 3.5 lb) and measuring 45–65 cm (18–26 in) in length, with a wingspan from 110–145 cm (43–57 in). The female red-tailed hawk averaging about 25% heavier than males. 

The red-tailed hawk occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, forests, agricultural fields and urban areas. It lives throughout the North American continent, except in areas of unbroken forest or the high arctic. It is legally protected in Canada, Mexico and the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

 

Because they are so common and easily trained as capable hunters, the majority of hawks captured for falconry in the United States are red-tails. Red-tailed hawk plumage can be variable and has three colors. Light, dark, and intermediate. The dark and intermediate constitute 10–20% of the population.  Though the markings and hue vary across the subspecies, the basic appearance of the red-tailed hawk is consistent. 

Overall, this species is blocky and broad in shape, often appearing (and being) heavier than other Buteos of similar length. A whitish underbelly with a dark brown band across the belly, formed by horizontal streaks in feather patterning, is present in most color variations. Especially in younger birds, the underside may be otherwise covered with dark brown spotting. The red tail, which gives this species its name, is uniformly brick-red above and light buff-orange below. The bill is short and dark, in the hooked shape characteristic of raptors, and the head can sometimes appear small in size against the thick body frame. They have a relatively short, broad tails and thick, chunky wings. The legs and the feet of the red-tailed hawk are all yellow.

 

Immature birds can be readily identified at close range by their yellowish irises. As the bird attains full maturity over the course of 3–4 years, the iris slowly darkens into a reddish-brown hue. The tail of the immature red-tailed hawk is patterned with numerous darker bars.  The red-tailed hawk is one of the most widely scattered hawks in the Americas. It breeds from central Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories east to southern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and south to Florida, the West Indies, and Central America. The winter range stretches from southern Canada south throughout the remainder of the breeding range.

 

Its preferred habitat is mixed forest and field, with high bluffs or trees that may be used as perch sites. It occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, coastal regions, mountains, foothills, tropical rainforests, agricultural fields and urban areas. It is second only to the peregrine falcon in the use of diverse habitats in North America. It lives throughout the North American continent, except in areas of unbroken forest or the high Arctic.

 

Adult hawks have few natural predators, although their eggs and chicks are preyed on by a variety of organisms. Unlike some other raptors, the red-tailed hawk is seemingly unfazed by considerable human activity and can nest and live in close proximity to large numbers of humans. Thus, the species can also be found in cities, where common prey such as rock pigeons and brown rats may support their populations. 

One famous urban red-tailed hawk, known as "Pale Male", became the subject of a non-fiction book, Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park, and is the first known red-tail in decades to successfully nest and raise young in the crowded New York City borough of Manhattan.  Hawks in urban areas are threatened by the use of rat traps and poisoned bait to kill rodents. This generally consists of warfarin cookies which induce internal bleeding in rats and mice, and a hawk that ingests rodents who have consumed rat poison can itself be affected.

In flight, this hawk soars with wings often in a slight dihedral, flapping as little as possible to conserve energy. Active flight is slow and deliberate, with deep wing beats. In wind, it occasionally hovers on beating wings and remains stationary above the ground. When soaring or flapping its wings, it typically travels from 32 to 64 km/h (40 mph), but when diving may exceed 190 km/h (120 mph).  The cry of the red-tailed hawk is a two to three second hoarse, rasping scream, described as kree-eee-ar, that begins at a high pitch and slurs downward. This cry is often described as sounding similar to a steam whistle.

The red-tailed hawk frequently vocalizes while hunting or soaring, but vocalizes loudest in annoyance or anger, in response to a predator or a rival hawk's intrusion into its territory. At close range, it makes a croaking "guh-runk”. Young hawks may utter a wailing klee-uk food cry when parents leave the nest. The fierce, screaming cry of the red-tailed hawk is frequently used as a generic raptor sound effect in television shows and other media, even if the bird featured is not a red-tailed hawk.  The red-tailed hawk is carnivorous, and an opportunistic feeder. 

Their most common prey are small mammals such as rodents and lagomorphs, but they will also consume birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Prey varies with regional and seasonal availability, but usually centers on rodents, comprising up to 85% of a hawk's diet. Most commonly reported prey types include mice, including both house mice; gophers, voles, chipmunks, ground squirrels, pigeons, various small birds and tree squirrels. During winter in captivity, an average red-tail will eat about 135 g (4.8 oz) daily.  

The red-tailed hawk commonly employs one of two hunting techniques. Often, they scan for prey activity from an elevated perch site, swooping down from the perch to seize the prey. They also watch for prey while flying, either capturing a bird in flight or pursuing prey on the ground until they can pin them down in their talons. 

Red-tailed hawks, like some other raptors, have been observed to hunt in pairs. This may consist of stalking opposites sides of a tree, in order to surround a tree squirrel and almost inevitably drive the rodent to be captured by one after being flushed by the other hawk.

 

The red-tailed hawk reaches sexual maturity at two years of age. It is monogamous, mating with the same individual for many years. In general, the red-tailed hawk will only take a new mate when its original mate dies. The same nesting territory may be defended by the pair for years. During courtship, the male and female fly in wide circles while uttering shrill cries. The male performs aerial displays, diving steeply, and then climbing again. After repeating this display several times, he sometimes grasps her talons briefly with his own. Courtship flights can last 10 minutes or more.  

A clutch of one to three eggs is laid in March or April, depending upon latitude. Clutch size depends almost exclusively on the availability of prey for the adults. Eggs are laid approximately every other day. The eggs are usually about 60 mm × 47 mm (2.4 in × 1.9 in). They are incubated primarily by female, with the male substituting when the female leaves to hunt or merely stretch her wings. The male brings most food to the female while she incubates. After 28 to 35 days, the eggs hatch over 2 to 4 days; the nestlings are altricial at hatching. The female broods them while the male provides most of the food to the female and the young, which are known as eyasses (pronounced "EYE-ess-ez"). The female feeds the eyasses after tearing the food into small pieces. After 42 to 46 days, the eyasses begin to leave the nest. The fledging period follows, with short flights engaged in, after another 3 weeks. About 6 to 7 weeks after fledging, the young begin to capture their own prey. Shortly thereafter, when the young are around 4 months of age, they become independent of their parents. However, the hawks do not generally reach breeding maturity until they are around 3 years of age. 

In the wild, red-tailed hawks have lived for at least 25 years, for example, Pale Male was born in 1990, and in Spring 2014 is still raising eyasses. The oldest captive hawk of this species was at least 29 and a half years of age.

 

The feathers and other parts of the red-tailed hawk are considered sacred to many American indigenous people and, like the feathers of the bald eagle and golden eagle, are sometimes used in religious ceremonies and found adorning the regalia of many Native Americans in the United States; these parts, most especially their distinctive tail feathers, are a popular item in the Native American community. As with the other two species, the feathers and parts of the red-tailed hawk are regulated by the eagle feather law, which governs the possession of feathers and parts of migratory birds. 

In the Milton Blue Hills several breeds of hawks can be seen soaring high in the sky looking for prey. 

Roy Chambers - Dick Russell
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