Roadside Raptors

When driving along our region’s highways, have you noticed any large birds sitting in trees? With a quick glance, you’d probably notice a bird that has a brown back and a white front. Chances are, you’ve observed a common roadside raptor, the Red-tailed Hawk.

When driving along our region’s highways, have you noticed any large birds sitting in trees? With a quick glance, you’d probably notice a bird that has a brown back and a white front. Chances are, you’ve observed a common roadside raptor, the Red-tailed Hawk.

A Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the classic raptor to which all other hawks are compared. Raptors are predators equipped with a hooked beak and sharp curved talons for seizing prey.

The Red-tailed Hawk’s dark brown head, back, and wings contrast with its white underside. Across its white chest is a belly band of brown streaks—the species’ best field mark, visible even from afar. When the bird is flying, look for its stocky body, broad rounded wings, and wide tail. Only adult birds show their red tail; young Red-tailed Hawks have finely-barred brown tails, and acquire the red feathers in their second year.

Red-tailed Hawk populations flourish because they have adapted to human-altered landscapes. Their favored habitats are small woodlots adjacent to open fields or farms. Woodlots provide trees for nesting sites and perches for hunting. Red-tailed Hawks forage in pastures and fields for small mammals, but also find additional prey along grass-covered ditches and highway medians.

These hawks have versatile hunting abilities. They perch along roadsides waiting for prey to make their move. Tree branches, fence posts, billboards, telephone poles, and even power lines become elevated perching sites. Choice foods include mice, voles, and shrews. But Red-tailed Hawks aren’t picky eaters; they take anything that can be easily caught. Their extended menu includes small birds, snakes, frogs, large insects, and even fresh carrion.

When prey is detected by their binocular-like eyes, the Red-tailed Hawk swoops down, thrusting its legs forward about three meters from the prey. It catches the prey with one foot slightly in front of the other, pinning it to the ground. Rodents retaliate by biting the hawk’s legs and talons before succumbing. Red-tailed Hawks can also “hover hunt” like kestrels or ospreys, scanning the ground before diving down for their prey. A unique ability of Red-tailed Hawks is “kiting,” in which the birds hold themselves immobile into the wind with set wings, similar
to a kite tugging against a string.

The Red-tailed Hawk population can remain steady throughout our state when we respect its life and habitat.

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