Brenda is a female Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) who came
to us in February of 2001 after she was found caught up in a tree.
Upon examination, it was discovered that she had been shot with a pellet gun
multiple times. Although her left wing is still completely intact,
arthritis has taken over and she cannot fully extend that wing.
Brenda's coloring is different from the medium-brown color of most
red-tailed Hawks. Other than her red tail feathers, all of her other
feathers are a deep, rich brown color. This dark color pattern is called a
"dark morph", or melanistic, and is found in no more than 20% of the
red-tailed hawk population.
Red-tailed hawks can be found all aver North America, and as far north as
central Alaska in the summer and south to Panama in the winter. They are
probably the most common hawk species in the US. They are members of the
genus Buteo consists of the larger soaring hawks. These birds have broad
wings and tails which allow them to soar over open areas and they can often
be found circling over fields in search of food. They easily ride rising
warm air thermals up into the sky, expending little energy. They occupy
almost any open habitat, including desert, grassland, fields, and parks.
They may also inhabit tropical rainforest in Mexico and the Caribbean
islands. Red-tailed hawks build wide platform nests out of sticks, or may
re-use one built in a previous year. They will build the nest on the top of
a tall tree, a platform, cliff ledge, or even a building ledge. A mated pair
will usually stay together until one of the pair dies. During courtship, the
male puts on a display of diving and swooping, and may occasionally clasp
talons with the female and spiral through the air.
Other members of the Buteo family found in Washington include the Swainson's
Hawk, the Rough-legged Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk. The Swainson’s Hawk
visits this area in the summer, when it migrates up from South America. In
flight, it is identifiable by white underwing coverts, and dark flight
feathers. The Rough-legged Hawk is in this area in the winter, when it
migrates south from the Arctic, where they breed. In flight, it is
identifiable by a very prominent black wrist patch, and dark primary feather
tips. Both of these birds tend to hunt smaller prey than the red-tail,
allowing them to coexist peacefully where their ranges overlap. The
red-tailed hawk inhabits most of the US year-round and does not migrate
unless local conditions become intolerable.
Red Tailed Hawks typically weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. There is no
physical difference between males and females other than that the females
tend to be about 1/4 to 1/3 larger than males. Adult birds are typically
dark brown on their backs and on the tops of their wings. Their undersides
are generally light with markings on their wings that can be described as a
dash followed by a comma starting near the shoulder and extending out toward
the primary feathers. Adults may also show a light colored patch of
feathering on their chests, commonly referred to as a "sunburst". Immature
Red-tailed Hawks resemble the adults but their tails are brown with stripes,
and their chest tends to be lighter tan with brow streaks. They will start
to get their red tail with the first molt at one year of age, and will have
a fully red tail by the second year. The young also have yellow eyes, which
transition to dark brown in adulthood.
However, there is great color variation among the red-tailed hawks. They can
range in color from very dark, almost black, to very light tan, close to
white. In general, we categorize them into three groups, the light, dark,
and intermediate morphs. The light morph is the least common, making up
maybe 5% of the total population. They are almost strictly found in the
Northeast US. The most common color variation is the intermediate morph,
which is thought to be at least 80% of the total population. The dark morph
makes up the remaining 15%, and is relatively more common in the Pacific
Northwest. There is disagreement about the number of subspecies of the
red-tailed hawk, with numbers ranging from 5 to 16. The best known
subspecies is the Harlan’s Hawk. This very dark form of the Red-tailed Hawk
has a marbled white, brown, and gray tail instead of a red one. It’s so
distinctive that it was once considered a separate species.
Red-tailed Hawks are very well adapted to locate prey from great distances.
Their eyesight is at least eight times more powerful than that of humans! In
other words, if a hawk were to stand at one end of a football field he would
be able to see a grasshopper jump across the end zone on the opposite end
with ease! They usually sit in a tree or on a telephone pole and survey the
area for food, before diving quickly to pounce on their prey.
Red-tailed Hawks are opportunistic hunters and will eat animals as diverse
as rabbits, squirrels, snakes, lizards, insects and birds. However, 85% -
90% of their diet is made up of small mammals – mainly rabbits, squirrels,
and mice/rats. They can hunt striking snakes using a special matador move (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjmJla-q880).
Occasionally, red-tailed hawks will kill a snake by flying it up into the
air and dropping it on a hard surface.
The red-tailed hawk has the ultimate raptor scream, often heard in movies
(even if the raptor shown is an eagle).