Red-tailed hawks, the laid back hunters

Last week's Farm & Home page in The Reporter showed a picture sent by Roberta Butler of a Red-tailed hawk cooling off in her birdbath. You don't see hawks lounging around the backyard, unless it's a big backyard.

Red-tails are carnivores, and eat small mammals, so the attraction to bird feeders and bird baths isn't very strong (although they prey on birds). Even though they eat small mammals, cats and small dogs aren't on the menu.

The Red-tailed hawk is adaptable, with an easy-going personality. It's high, piercing scream is very recognizable, and is a common sound effect in commercials, movies and TV shows.

It is the most popular bird for falconry, and its feathers and body parts are considered sacred by Native Americans. They live in North America and the Caribbean Islands. Its genus name is Buteo jamaicensis, since they were first sighted in Jamaica. Their common name comes from their rust-colored tails.

Red-tails are raptors, meaning "birds of prey." Raptors hunt on the wing, killing with their talons. They swallow their prey whole, or rip larger prey to shreds before eating.

Red-tails belong to the genus Buteo, which are medium-sized raptors with broad wings and tails. Red-tails are the largest bird in the genus, weighing up to 3.5 pounds with a wingspan to 57 inches.

Their typical travel speed is 20 to 40 miles per hour. Dives can exceed 120 mph. Buteos are buzzards, although we call them hawks here in the U.S. We use "buzzard" as a derogatory term for vultures and other carrion eaters. "True hawks" are in the genus Accipter.

Another name for Red-tailed hawks is "chicken hawk," because of their reputation for hunting chickens. Settlers gave them the name because young Red-tails would occasionally eat chickens since they were easy targets for the beginning hunters.

Red-tails perch in trees, and atop utility poles and fence posts to hunt. They will fly the familiar circular soaring pattern to look for prey. They sometimes hunt in pairs. Their favorite food is rodents (85 percent of their diet).

They also like bats. In Round Rock, a favorite hunting ground is the IH-35 overpass, where they await the nightly exodus of bats from under the bridge.

The Congress Avenue Bridge in Austin, where a large colony of bats thrives, may also be a draw to a pair of Red-tail hawks that have made their home on top of the Capitol building.

Obviously, hawks can live with humans, and they are generally non-aggressive unless they are protecting their babies.

Red-tailed hawks are monogamous, and will only take another mate when the current mate dies. The pair defends their territory from other hawks, and may use the same area for years. They nest 35 to 75 feet above ground in trees, cliffs and atop buildings. The nest is made of twigs and sticks, and is large, flat, and shallow.

They mate in early spring, laying one to three eggs. The young are covered in white down, and are called eyasses (EYE-ess-ess). After 42 to 46 days, the young leave the nest.

The Great Horned Owl eats the same prey as the Red-tailed hawk. They may compete for food during twilight, as the owls become active, and the hawks settle down for the night. The owls can't build their own nests, so they take over Red-tail nests. Since breeding times are different, there is usually no competition. Red-tails are used to this occurring, and build a new nest if their nest from the previous year is occupied by owls.

So, next time you hear an eagle crying in a Hollywood movie, you'll know who you are actually hearing.

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2009-07-30 digital edition

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