Birds – Red Tailed Hawk

(Buteo borealis)


Length—Male 20 inches; female 23 inches.

Male and Female—Upper parts dark grayish brown; the feathers edged with rufous, white, gray, and tawny ; the wing coverts lack the rufous shade ; tail rusty red, tipped with white and with a narrow black band near its end, but silvery gray on the under side. Under parts buff or whitish, with heaviest brown or blackish markings on the flanks and underneath, often forming an imperfect band across the lower breast. Immature birds lack the red tail, their tails being grayish, or like the back, with numerous black bars.

Range—Eastern United States, west to the great plains; nesting throughout its range.

Season—Permanent resident; partly migratory.

With a wing spread of four feet, the red-tailed hawk, no less than the red-shouldered species, is a conspicuous object in the sky, especially in August and September, when all hawks appear to be less hungry and vicious than usual, and constantly and serenely sailing and gyrating high overhead, beyond thought of mundane concerns. Lacking the dash and address of Cooper’s hawk, this far larger, heavier buzzard is rather leisurely, not to say slow, of movement. Mounting higher and higher in a spiral till it appears a mere speck in the blue, it will sail and float, ascending, descending, in long undulations, then, when rising and circling, with no perceptible vibration of its wings, it will suddenly lift them to a point above the back and shoot earthward like a meteor. Catching itself just as you believe it must certainly dash itself to pieces, again it rises, with bounds, on broad wings to enjoy the stratum of cooler air, high above the tree tops, all these hardy birds delight in. One hawk was watched in the air, without once alighting, from seven in the morning till four in the afternoon.

When not in the act of sailing, the most likely position to find this majestic air king in is perched on a tree at the edge of a patch of woods, a dead limb near water, or above low open fields or swamps, and there, intent and eager, it will wait hours and hours for its quarry to come within range. Then, like feathered lightning, down it flashes and strikes its prey. One never sees this hawk dashing through the air in pursuit of a victim, as the sharp-shinned, Cooper’s hawk and the goshawk do. It may sometimes pounce upon a bird a-wing, but humbler quarry generally takes it to earth. Of the five hundred and sixty-two stomachs of red-tailed hawks examined by Mr. Fisher for the Department of Agriculture, one-half contained mice, about one-third other mammals, fifty-four contained poultry or game birds; and batrachians or reptiles, insects, etc., filled part of the remainder, eighty-nine being empty. Captain Bendire, in his valuable book prepared for the Government, says : ” Unfortunately the red-tailed hawk has a far worse reputation with the average farmer than it really deserves; granting that it does capture a chicken or one of the smaller game birds now and then—and this seems to be the case only in winter, when such food as they usually subsist on is scarce-it can be readily proved that it is far more beneficial than otherwise, and really deserves protection, instead of having a bounty placed on its head, as has been the case in several states.”

Around the nest especially, though one sometimes hears its squealing whistle, like escaping steam,” as it floats overhead, at any season, the red-tail becomes more noisy, but its voice is rather weak, considering the size of the bird. About eighty per cent. of all nests found have been in birch trees, and placed from sixty to seventy feet from the ground. A large bundle of sticks, lined with strips of bark, twigs, and feathers from the birds themselves, is placed usually where some large limb branches off from the trunk; and so dear does this rude cradle become to the mates that jointly prepare it, it will be used year after year if the hawks are unmolested. From two to four dull white eggs, with rough, granulated shells, often scantily and irregularly marked with shades of cinnamon, take about four weeks of close incubation, in which both the devoted lovers and parents assist. It is believed these birds, like most of their kin, remain mated for life. The helpless, downy young remain in the .nest until fully able to fly. Hawks usually bolt their food, and around a nest are abundant traces of the hearty appetite of a young family, the tufts of mouse hair and pellets of other disgorged, indigestible material plentifully besprinkling the ground.

The Western Red-tail (Buteo borealis calurus), a darker colored race than the preceding, differs from it in no essential particulars.