Birds – Red-tailed Hawk

One of the best known North American Buzzards is the Red-tailed Hawk, which, under several well-marked forms, ranges through-out the entire continent. The typical form and the Red-tail par excellence (Buteo borealis) is found in the eastern United States and west to the border of the Great Plains. It is from nineteen to about twenty-five inches in length, blackish brown above, variegated with gray, fulvous, and whitish, and white with more or less of buffy below, with the abdomen streaked with brownish, while the tail is deep rusty rufous, with usually a subterminal band of black. In the immature bird the tail is gray without any shade of red, and is crossed by six to ten dark bands. Although one of our larger birds of prey, it is not very active in its movements, but may frequently be seen sitting, for hours at a time, on a dead limb of a tall tree, watching for its quarry. It frequents moderately timbered districts, especially swampy woods along water courses, although it is not infrequently found in upland woods and in mountain regions. It is usually a very shy and wary bird, for continued and persistent persecution has made it suspicious of man, yet it is a bird about which there is not a little misunderstanding. It occasionally makes a meal off young poultry, or an over-confident game bird, and consequently it is killed whenever opportunity presents under the supposition that it is the chief offender in these depredations. As a matter of fact its food consists principally of mice and other small rodents, as well as frogs, reptiles, and insects, and only rarely of poultry or game birds. Of 562 stomachs of this species examined by Dr. Fisher, only 54 contained the remains of poultry or game birds, while 409 contained mice or other mammals, principally the former, and 37 had been feeding on batrachians and reptiles, and 47 on insects. The destructive propensity of meadow mice, shrews, and ground squirrels is enormous, and unless in some way kept in check would result in vast damage to the agriculturist. The Red-tail does just this thing, and consequently is deserving of protection rather than persecution at the hands of the farmer.

During the mating season these birds are perhaps most prominently in evidence, since they are often to be observed circling about and chasing each other high in air, and uttering their shrill, often-repeated, and far-reaching skee’-e-e-e. The nest is placed in a tree, usually fifty or sixty feet from the ground, and is a bulky structure of large sticks, the nesting cavity being usually shallow, and lined with bark, grasses, weed-stalks, etc., or sometimes unlined. Ordinarily they make but little demonstration when the nest or young are disturbed, although sometimes they defend their home by darting and screaming at the intruder. The eggs are usually two or three in number, with a dull or creamy white ground color, about one-fifth being unspotted, while the remainder are more or less spotted and blotched with various shades of brown.

Other Forms of Red-tail. —The following geographical races are recognized : the Western Red-tailed Hawk (B. b. calurus), which inhabits the country west of the Rocky Mountains as well as portions of Mexico; Krider’s Red-tail (B. B.Kriderii), found on the Great Plains from Minnesota to Texas; Harlan’s Red-tail (B. b. harlani) of the lower Mississippi Valley and the Gulf States; the Socorro Red-tail (B. b. socorroensis), found only on Socorro Island, off western Mexico; and the Costa Rica Red-tail (B. B. Costaricensis) of Costa Rica and Panama.

Red-shouldered Hawk. — Another well-known species is the Red-shouldered Hawk (B. Lineatus), a slightly smaller bird than the last and with about the same range as the typical form. It is reddish brown above, the center of the feathers being darker than the edge, while the head, neck, and lower parts, but especially the shoulders, are more or less rusty or cinnamon, barred with whitish. The tail is black and crossed by about six white bands. It is a somewhat less shy bird than the Red-tail, and frequents lowlands bordering streams and marshes, or, during the nesting season, upland woods. Although its food is largely the same as that of the Red-tail, it is obliged to share with that species the undeserved reputation of being a poultry yard marauder, yet out of 220 stomachs examined from birds killed at all seasons and in many parts of its range, only 3 contained poultry, and 194 mice and insects, a sufficient proof of its usefulness. The nest is not unlike that made by its relative, being composed of sticks of various sizes, and lined with bark of the grapevine and other fibers, or occasionally with a few green leaves. The eggs are usually three or four in number, but sets of five and even six have been known; they are dull white or bluish white, variously spotted and blotched with different shades of brown. There are two geographical races of this species, a more rufous or rusty-breasted form on the Pacific coast and a smaller race in Florida.

Other American Species. — Space will permit no more than a bare mention of other American species. The Zone-tailed Hawk (B. abbreviatus), a bird of South and Central America, and northward to the southern border of the United States, is uniform black or blackish brown, the feathers with pure white bases, and has the black tail crossed by three broad zones of white. Swainson’s Hawk (B. swainsoni), of western North America, is grayish brown above and buffy white below, and there is a distinct black phase in both sexes; the Little Black Hawk, so called, which may be known by the black or dark sooty brown lower parts, is now regarded as the black phase of the Short-tailed Hawk (B. brachyurus), which has the lower parts white. It is a resident of tropical America in general, but comes north occasionally to Florida, where it breeds.