Thursday, January 30, 2014

Red-tailed Sentinel

According to Cornell’s All About Birds, the Red-tailed Hawk, (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most common hawk in North America.  In our own experience at certain times of year, for example, while traveling to Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge you will see one after another, perching in trees or on light poles, along Refuge Road. You can judge the size of their territory by the distance between them.

Red-tailed Hawk at HNWR, by Carl Hill
These large birds are easily identified when sitting, by the white front with the belly band, and the red tail.   In Hawks in Flight, (2nd Edition) by Dunne, Sibley and Clayton) we read that the basic ID for the Red-tailed is “big, broad, lumpy winged, and short-tailed.”  Weighing up to three pounds, the Red-tailed hawk’s size allows it “to soar and glide, with little or no wobble”.

In the hawk family, Red-tailed hawks show the most variation in plumage – example - Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk,  and the highest incidence of  partial albinism - example -  Krider’s Red-tailed Hawk.

Red-tails are either resident or migrate short distances: “Most birds from Alaska, Canada, and the northern Great Plains fly south for a few months in winter, remaining in North America. Birds across the rest of the continent typically stay put, sharing the countryside with northern arrivals”. 

They feed primarily on mammals, and we recently read somewhere that some hawks have adapted to life along the “fast lane” and hang about highways waiting for speeding vehicles to deliver freshly killed or wounded “dinner”.

The term "hawk-eyed" is based on the fact that in members of the Family Accipitridae, Hawks and Allies, visual acuity is 4 - 8 times that of humans, and some raptors can spot small prey more than a  mile away.  In relation to the head-size, some birds of prey have eyes larger, relatively, than human eyes. (The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior).

Red-tailed hawks may be found in any open habitat.  They nest in tall trees or cliff edges, building or re-using a substantial nest of sticks that is 3’ across up to 6.5’ deep.  A pair will have one brood, with 1 - 5 eggs.

According to Cornell, the shrill cry of any raptor in a movie is probably the cry of the Red-tailed Hawk.  To hear various Red-tail calls, you can go to

Pale Male is the most famous Red-tailed Hawk; this New York City resident has been the subject of a PBS documentary and has his own website (

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