Red-tailed Hawks Are Almost Everywhere
by Ro Wauer
During a recent trip to California I was surprised how different those red-tailed hawks are from those that occur in South Texas. Although I had lived in California for many years, even started my birding life while living in the northern Bay Area, I had forgotten those differences. Although both areas produce birds with a rufous to brick-red tail, a frontal view is quite different. The California birds are typical of red-tails in much of the West as well as those in the northern and eastern U.S. Those birds typically possess cream-colored underparts with cinnamon or blackish streaking on the side of the breast and a broad band of dark barring and streaking across the belly. The South Texas red-tails, a subspecies that occurs from the Trans-Pecos east to the Gulf Coast, possess white underparts; the breast is often shiny white in the right light. All red-tails have a rather distinct call, a raspy, descending “tseer,” often heard in Western movies. They call most often when disturbed to irritated.
Our red-tailed hawk is the Fuertes subspecies, the largest of all the red-tail subspecies. If the two birds were sitting side-by-side, the Fuertes red-tail would be noticeably larger and whiter. The back of all the adult red-tails is blackish or dark brown with mottled gray patches. That mottled appearance helps to identify red-tails that are sitting with their back to you even from a distance. The other broad-winged hawks that occur in our area regularly - Harris’s, broad-winged, red-shouldered, and white-tailed - are quite different in appearance. Even in flight, they are very different. First and foremost, only red-tails possess a red tail. Harris’s hawks possess chestnut shoulders, but their tail is white with a broad black band. White-tailed hawks also possess chestnut shoulders, and their tail is immaculate white except for a narrow black band near the tip. And the red-shouldered hawk, our most common full-time resident hawk, has a many-banded tail and reddish shoulders and banded underparts.
The red-tailed hawk is the most widespread species of North American hawks with a range that extends coast to coast, south to Panama, and northwest through most of Canada to Alaska. Unlike our red-shouldered hawk, that frequents wooded areas, red-tails prefer open country with scattered trees as well as arid lands. Nesting, that normally occurs from late February through late June, usually occurs in the crotch of large trees with a commanding view. But some individuals also utilize cliffs with pockets large enough to hold a nest and high enough so that it cannot be reached by predators. The nests, the largest of all hawk nests, are bulky structures of sticks and twigs, and lined with bark, twigs and leaves. They sometimes utilize old nests of other raptors. Females lay one to five eggs, both adults feed the nestlings, and fledgling occurs in 45 to 46 days.
Red-tail diet consists primarily of rodents, such as mice, rats, ground squirrels and prairie dogs, but they also will take other prey, such as amphibians, crayfish, fish, and even insects, whatever the land provides. Hunting red-tails utilize open country where they soar at moderate heights in search of prey. They can stalk their prey from the air, usually from 100 to 500 feet, or they can search for prey from some strategic perch such as a treetop, telephone pole, or fence post. Once a prey is located they may either dive on it or approach from a lower side angle. They then pin the prey to the ground with their large curved talons, kill it with a swift bite of the bill, and then either carry it off to a waiting family or to eat it elsewhere, or they may even feed right on site. Unlike a few other raptors, such as caracaras and eagles, red-tails normally feed only on their own kills.
In spite of their abundance throughout Texas, including being fairly common in all the open areas of the Golden Crescent, red-tailed hawks are worthy of our admiration.