Thursday, January 3, 2008

Red-Tailed Hawk--Buteo jamaicensis

Female Red-tailed Hawk Xena from South Bay Wildlife Rehab. A beautiful bird. I took this photo during a visit the rehab facility made to Wildbirds Unlimited, Huntington Beach--which has since closed.
All photographs copyright Karen McQuade.

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in the US and CanadaThe Red-tail is especially connected to the West in our popular psyche.  It imbues the West with the feeling of open spaces, loneliness, and majesty as we see it soaring high above dry, spacious land  and hear its screaming kee-eeee-arrr! What Western movie or TV show would be complete without it? Even the popular TV series Ugly Betty featured a Red-tailed Hawk in the first season's trip to Mexico. So majestic is the Red-tail's scream that in TV and movies it dubs the voice of the less acoustically impressive Bald Eagle.  

A Red-tailed Hawk by the Muth Center at the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve.

When I was in fifth grade, Mr. Shoemaker read us a wonderful book that I have never forgotten entitled Rufous Redtail by Helen Garrett. It is currently out of print, but it held our class's interest, and we begged for more chapters. The story of that Red-tailed Hawk has stayed in my mind since then.  It created a picture in my mind of an incredible wild animal as a living, breathing being just like me.  We were mesmerized by his triumphs and his tragedies. And we hung on Mr. Shoemaker's every word.

Same Hawk.

Red-tailed Hawks need a combination of open land and perches to hunt from. Parks, wilderness area, wetlands, and freeways provide this type of environment. It is not uncommon to see a Red-tailed Hawk on a lamp post or a tree with bare branches. They are members of the family Buteo which is a hawk family of large hawks with broad wings made to soar. And Red-tails love to soar on thermals, and you will also see them soaring high in the air searching for prey. A red-tail has a wingspan of about 50 inches, and its body is about 20 inches long.

See the hooked bill and notice how long the wings are.

Red-tailed Hawks eat rodents including mice, rats, squirrels, and rabbits. They also eat other birds, and reptiles. They have excellent eyesight and can easily see small prey at a distance either from a high perch or from high in the air.

Red-tailed Hawk watching me as I walk down the path. Notice that his long wings hide his red tail.

Red-tailed Hawks are monogamous and usually only take another mate if their current mate dies. They can live over 20 years in the wild and can approach 30 years old in captivity. They compete for nesting areas and nests with Great Horned Owls. Great Horned Owls and Red-tailed Hawks will eat each other's nestlings. The Red-tailed Hawk's courtship ritual is a dramatic. mid-air interaction involving clasping talons and breath-taking drops in the air. Like most raptors, the female is the larger bird.

Red-tailed Hawk sits on a good perch--a bare branch near the Muth Interpretive Center early one morning at the Newport Back Bay

Red-tailed Hawks get mobbed by American Crows for good reason. Red-tailed Hawks eat their chicks. Crows do the same to the Red-tailed Hawk chicks if they can. I once saw a Red-tailed Hawk being chased by a mob of crows. It had a crow chick in its talons.

                               Puffing himself up in the cool morning air.

The light in which you see a Red Tail and the angle from which you see a Red Tail can really change its look.   In addition to lighting affecting appearance, Red-tailed Hawks, and in particular, Western Red-Tailed Hawks have extremely variable plumage.  There are many degrees of light and dark morphs.The Red-Tailed Hawk juvenile does not have a red tail. It has lighter eyes than the adult as well. The adult has dark brown eyes.  Albinism and leucism (partial albinism) occurs regularly in Red-tails as well.  Do a Google or other search and you will find an amazing amount of articles and news stories about albino and leucistic Red-tails all over the US.  Check my post Red-Tailed Hawk Morphs.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight.

The most clear cut identification marks on a Red-tail besides the red tail, are seen from underneath as they fly or soar--the darker belly band and the dark marks on the front edge of the wings. Sometimes the belly band is light as in the picture above.

Immature Red-Tailed Hawk

Click on the picture to enlarge and see the black leading edge of the wing (the patagial) and the light belly band.

Good video from You-Tube about Red-tailed Hawks.

When you are out birding in the OC, check out the skies, the trees, posts, and light posts for Red-tailed Hawks. Have fun birding in Orange County!

A Red-tailed Hawk on the marsh at the Newport Back Bay as a Northern Harrier goes by, upper right.

Red-tailed Hawk named Xena at Wildbirds Unlimited, Huntington Beach. South Bay Wildlife Rehab came and brought rescued birds of prey who cannot be released as educational and PR agents. This is a female Red-tailed Hawk who is pretty mild-mannered and close to her handler who can practically do nosey-nosey with her. This was on 10/04/2008. Added to this post 10/16/2008. Note the red tail. If you want to donate to help birds like this one who have been injured, click on this link and donate to South Bay Wildlife Rehab.

A Red-tailed Hawk perched above Back Bay, looking down at the bicycles, cars, and pedestrians.

Red-tailed Hawk with prey--a female Mallard.  Mile Square Regional Park

OC Birder Girl Links to Birds of Prey

American Kestrel--Falco sparverius

Cooper's Hawk--Accipiter cooperii

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk Morphs

White-Tailed Kite--Elanus leucurus

Turkey Vultures--Cathartes aura

External Links and Resources

Cornell's page about color abnormalities in birds. Interesting.

All About Birds: Red-tailed Hawk

Detailed page about the Red-tailed Hawk.

Animal Diversity Web: Red-tailed Hawk
Very detailed page.

Birding Sonoma County : How to Identify Red-Tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks in Sonoma County, CA.

Wonderful blog by Sonoma County birder with good pictures and very nice drawings of birds. This post talks about and illustrates the difference between the Red-tailed Hawk and the Red-Shouldered Hawk. Good post.

Picture of a Red-tailed Hawk nestling.

BirdWeb: Red-tailed Hawk

Seattle Audubon Society's article on the Red-tailed Hawk. Lots of good information.

LA Times Article: Bay Red-tailed Hawk Rescued at Griffith Park

Short article, great picture.

National Geographic: Red-tailed Hawk Profile

Very good article with photographs and an educational video of a Red-tailed Hawk attacking and capturing a rattlesnake. Printable fact sheet. Photo gallery and more.

Orange County Bird of Prey Center

Wildlife rehabilitation and education. If you see an injured Red-tailed Hawk or any other hawk or bird of prey (Owls, eagles, falcons, condors, ospreys, kites, or vultures), call the the OC Bird of Prey Center or your local animal control who will make sure any wild animal gets to the correct rehabilitation center.

Pat's Backyard Cam: Partial Albino Red-tailed Hawk

The Peregrine Fund-- World Center for Birds of Prey

Great website with detailed information on all birds of prey. Includes quizzes.

USGS: Red-tailed Hawk

Short article that includes description of different morphs of the Red-tailed Hawk.

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