The City Naturalist

City Naturalist

Red-Tailed Hawk

Article and Photos by Leslie Day

RED-TAILED HAWK (Buteo jamaicensis: genus name: Latin, a group of hawks which are large, thick set with broad wings, wide rounded tails, and habitually soar high in wide circles.; species name: Latin - of the Island of Jamaica, which is where the first specimen originated. Other names: Buzzard hawk, eastern redtail, hen hawk, mouse hawk, red hawk, redtail.

The Red-tailed hawk is the best known and most broadly distributed hawk in North America, because it has a wider tolerance of habitats that any other hawk. It lives throughout Alaska, Canada and the U.S. It lives in high mountain country, deep forests, open pastures, in deserts where there are some trees, in mountain forests of the Southwest and in urban areas. There have been red-tails in Riverside Park for years. However the one whose picture you see here has been spending time daily near the Boat Basin since July, 1995. Many of us at the marina feel that observing this large and powerful bird is akin to a spiritual or religious experience.

DESCRIPTION: The largest North American Buteo, 19-25 inches long (female larger than male); wingspan up to 58 inches. Adults are dark brown above (back and wings); eyes brown with head that appears hooded because of bony shield over eyes; white on chest with brown streaks on lower neck and broad band of dark streaking across white belly which looks like a brown crescent (more noticeable on immatures); chestnut red on upper side of tail thus giving it the name of "red-tail". Immatures are similar to adults but upperparts of chest more mottled with white and tail tip is not red but banded with brown. Talons are large and sharp.

Weight for males 2 lbs. 8 oz; for females up to 3 pounds, eight ounces.

VOICE: high pitched, rasping scream kree-e-e-e starting high and slurring downward made while soaring and circling.

EYESIGHT: Amazing eyesight allows them to see small mice while soaring 100 feet above the ground. Although one third the size of a an adult human male, their eyes are as large as a man's - sometimes larger. The greatest density of nerve receptors seen in any eye has been recorded for a hawk. Their eyes are specially adapted for rapid change of focus (while hunting they go into aerial dives of 120 mph!) and unlike most birds, hawks have binocular vision

FEEDING HABITS: May hunt while soaring. They can snatch birds right out of the air. Our red-tail has been sighted eating a pigeon. Most often watches for prey from perch in tree from which it takes off with powerful wingbeats, then glides toward ground and snatches prey from the ground with its powerful and sharp talons. When they extend their legs fully in a dive, tendons spread the claws. When it strikes its prey, the legs double up under the force of impact which automatically clenches the toes and talons. The talons then pierce the vital organs of the victim, causing instant death. Red tail hawks can eat any of the following prey: grasshoppers, house mice, field mice, rats, red and gray squirrels, rabbits, moles, chipmunks, skunks, muskrats, porcupines, feral house cats, waterfowl, pheasants, doves, owls, kingfishers, pigeons, starlings, crows (we often see a family of 4 crows chasing this red-tail out of the ball field and hillside trees), robins and other small birds; snakes, turtles, toads, frogs, lizards, salamanders, crayfish, crickets, beetles, spiders, earthworms, carp and catfish caught at edge of pond or stream.

NEST: Very large, 3 feet across, made of sticks, twigs, lined with bark and sometimes decorated with green sprigs of evergreen. Usually built in oaks, pines and other large trees, from 15-70 feet or more above ground, usually in crotch of branch at trunk, often in tallest tree. In the spring of 1996 a pair of red-tails nested for the first time in recorded history on a man-made building, an apartment house on Fifth Avenue and 75th Street. The pair successfully raised 2 young.

EGGS: Eggs are laid anytime between February and June;usually 2-3, dull white, sparsely spotted with brown. Incubation, mostly by female while male feeds her on the nest, lasts approximately one month. The hatchlings, wearing soft coats of down, are feeble and their other feeds them by holding out bits of flesh in the tip of her bill. After a week they have developed enormous appetites and the female leaves the nest and helps her mate search for food. The young can fly when they are about 45 days old and are taught to hunt from the air by their parents who continue to find prey for them until they have gained the coordination needed to capture live prey. The young hawks play a game of plunging and veering, increasing their hunting skills while they play.

RANGE: Northern birds migrate as far as gulf coast during winter months, however many stay year-round in their nesting grounds if food is plentiful. The large flocks of pigeons, starlings, house sparrows, winter song birds and ducks that live year round at the marina is a strong attraction for this red-tail.

AGE: A captive female at Millbrook, N.Y., lived to 29 years old.

FLIGHT SPEED: Flapping and gliding in migration: 20-40 mph; top speed during level flight recorded at 40 mph, but approaching 120 mph during aerial dive.

About Leslie Day | For Further Information

Copyright © 1996-2012 The 79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society.