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by Stan Tekiela
November 4, 2019
Often it is the common critters that go unnoticed or at least unappreciated. After all, when was the last time you noticed a House Sparrow or Pigeon? How about an Eastern Chipmunk or Gray Squirrel? I’ve always maintained that we see woodpeckers do incredibly amazing things, such as landing on vertical surfaces without slipping, nearly every day but we don’t give it a second thought. It’s unbelievable that these woodpeckers fly up to a tree trunk and stick to it like Velcro. The woodpeckers act as if gravity doesn’t exist. All other birds are landing on horizontal branches.
Recently while leading a birding trip to see migrating hawks in northern Minnesota, I got to thinking about all the Red-tailed Hawks we were seeing. This is one of those hawks that can be very common in both rural and urban environments and often goes unnoticed. I see Red-tailed Hawks sitting on highway light posts right in big cities and see many more along highways in the country.
Red-tails are found breeding throughout most of North America, from Canada and Alaska all the way down to Panama and the West Indies. They are masters of adapting to different habitats. They are found from the mountains to the prairies. From the forests to the deserts. They also do well in edge habitats where forests met prairies or mountains met flatlands and they nest in large cities such as New York city.
Sometimes called “Chickenhawks” they actually don’t hunt chickens but rather concentrate mainly on small mammals such as mice, voles and shrews. They will also hunt Cottontail Rabbits and ground squirrels. They hunt reptiles such as snakes and lizards and also chase down larger birds such as Pigeons for their next meal. They are opportunistic and seasonal feeders. Which means they will take advantage of any prey they find and follow whatever prey is seasonally abundant. They have been known to hunt and eat upwards of 500 different species. Small mammals make up 65% of their diet and 21% birds. Red-tails require about 7 to 10% percent of their body weight in food each day to survive which works out to about 3 mice per day or the equivalent weight in prey.
Identifying Red-tailed Hawks can sometimes be challenging. Not because you don’t see many of them, but rather because they can be highly variable in color. There are 14 recognized subspecies of the Red-tailed Hawk. Within these, there are three distinct color morphs or phases of Red-tailed Hawks, light morph, intermediate and dark. The terminology is a little confusing here. When they are called morphs or phases it makes it sound like it’s a temporary condition or that they will change color. This is not correct. For example, a dark morph bird is born dark and will have dark feathers its entire life, or the light morph will stay light it’s entire life.
The light morphs can be bright white while the dark morph is deep chocolate brown. In the light and intermediate morphs, you can clearly see the red tail but in the dark morph the red tail is much less obvious.
Red-tails are a large hawk standing just over 2 feet tall. But for all their size they only weigh between 1.5 and 3.5 pounds. Adult females are about 20% larger than males. This is a noticeable difference. In biology, when one sex is larger than the other it’s called sexual dimorphism. Wing spans range from 3.5 feet to 4.5 feet from wing tip to wing tip.
They use their big broad wings to fly and soar over open areas to hunt for prey. In many parts of the country Red-tailed Hawks will hunt for bats near sunset when the bats are emerging from sleeping all day. The hawks chase them down and snatch them right out of midair. Red-tails spend a lot of time just sitting and hanging out. Once a meal has been procured for the day they often will just hang out.
So, it was a real pleasure that we got to see several Red-tails during the birding trip to Minnesota’s north shore along with other cool birds such as Northern Goshawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travel’s the U.S. to study and photograph wildlife. He can be followed at www.facebook.com or twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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