Grays Harbor Birds — Red-tailed Hawk

This column debuted July 11, 2010 with a photo and two columns of statistics; the subject of that column was an Osprey, picked because a friend of mine had shared her excellent photo of the bird just as it was poised to grab a fish in the water.

Each succeeding column has been based on photos taken, usually by Gregg Thompson, of birds that were being seen at the time it was written. The goal is to familiarize ourselves with what we can go out and find in our own backyards, forests, parks, beaches, and fields of Grays Harbor.

On the third anniversary of this column, I am spotlighting my personal favorite of all birds, the one that began my own birding interests … the Red-tailed Hawk. The accompanying photo however is of Pale Male, probably the most famous hawk in the country, if not the world, thanks to the Internet. He chose to settle in New York City’s Central Park. His story was told via a book called “Red-tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park”, by Marie Winn and published in 1998. Lincoln Karim has been documenting the hawk and his family in photos since 2002 at the web site, and it is his photo that appears in today’s column.

Size: 19 inches in length, wing span of 49 inches, and weighing nearly 2 1/2 pounds.

General Description: Red-tailed Hawks are our most common buteos, found in cities and in the countryside. They perch in trees, on light standards beside our highways, or on wires strung between power poles, peering intently at the ground below. We often see them above us, soaring in circles, sun shining through those wonderfully rusty-red tails. Their plumage is extremely varied, with some dark, some light, and some rufous phases. Most have a distinctive light breast with a mottled, darker “belly band”. Their heads are usually darker, with adults having dark eyes and the juveniles yellow. Their wings are long and broad and they have relatively short, wide tails. The juveniles lack the rufous colored tails. Their backs are mottled brown and white, and their feet are bright yellow.

Habitat: Red-tailed Hawks are found in nearly all habitats with open spaces to soar and elevated perches to scan for prey and to rest. They prefer open fields in which to hunt.

Behavior: With their broad wings and wide tails, these hawks spend much of their time riding thermals (hot air currents), looking for prey or while migrating. They are also seen perched on poles and branches in a “sit and wait” style of hunting, watching the ground below for prey. Their harsh “keeer” call is one of the most often-used bird calls in TV commercials, often misused for other birds of prey.

Diet: Most farmers welcome red-tails on their property to keep down the rodent and rabbit population, but free-range chickens can also be a favorite meal if not kept in pens. (A well-informed chicken farmer will keep his poultry in easily-moved pens with open bottoms but covered tops.) The hawks also eat snakes, gophers, voles, moles, and the occasional fish, large insect, or even some fresh carrion.

Nesting: Red-tailed Hawks are monogamous and often remain paired throughout the year. Their aerial courtship displays are always fun to watch; spiraling around one another, legs lowered, stooping, rolling over in flight to display and grasp talons, and sometimes even grasping talons and swinging one another around. Their nests are built in the crotch of tall trees or on cliff ledges in the wild, or on platforms or building ledges in cities. In our area they are usually found in deciduous trees, like black cottonwood or red alder. They may use the remnants of a former raptor nest, and add to it, or build from scratch. Both sexes build the bulky nest with a collection of sticks lined with bark, grasses, leaves, and evergreen branches. Both incubate 2 to 3 eggs for a month. The female broods the young for 30 to 35 days after they hatch, while the male brings the food. She tears the food into bite-sized pieces and feeds the young until their naked crops bulge and they fall asleep. The young leave the nest to practice “branching” at about 42 to 48 days but cannot fly for another 2 to 3 weeks. Most juveniles cannot catch their own food until 6 or 7 weeks after leaving the nest, and they may continue to associate with their parents for up to 6 months after they leave the nest. It is not uncommon for the adults to have to chase away one or more of last year’s brood before starting a new breeding season.

Migration Status: Most of the western Washington breeding population of red-tails are resident birds. Those that do migrate leave in the late fall and typically migrate throughout the U.S. and northern Mexico, returning in the early spring.

Conservation Status: Red-tails are the most common and widespread hawk in North America. As a result of logging, increased residential development, and farming, the patchwork of forest and open lands has been an open invitation to red-tails. They seem to thrive along-side humans.

When and Where to Find in Grays Harbor: Each time I drive to and from home to points east, I play a game of counting the number of red-tails I see along the roads and highways. I counted 12 on one summer day last year on my way to Olympia! Look for them perched on poles, telephone or cable wires, fence-posts, and the branches of trees, or soaring in circles above our heads. They are big, so they are fairly easy to spot. Enjoy their beauty.