Wednesday, July 1, 2009


For almost 6 years now, I have enjoyed the antics of a pair of Red-tailed Hawks who live in a tree near the back of my property. I love to watch these beautiful birds floating high above the trees, gracefully gliding through the air.

Red-tailed Hawks are large birds with razor sharp talons and can be very aggressive when defending nests or territories. They frequently chase off other hawks, eagles, and Great Horned Owls.

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common hawk – raptor – in North American occupying just about every type of open habitat on the continent. This includes grasslands, roadsides, deserts, scrublands, pastures, parks and even rainforests. They love to soar above open fields, slowly turning in circles on their broad, rounded wings looking for prey. They also enjoy sitting on telephone poles or other tall structures watching for a meal.

Mammals make up the majority of the Hawks diet, including voles, rats, mice, rabbits, squirrels and snakes. Yes, I’ve seen my Red-tails flying by with a snake clutched in their razor sharp talons. They will also eat other birds: starlings, blackbirds, bobwhites and pheasants.

It is this love of other birds that lead to a hilarious sight a few weeks ago when I came home from work. As I pulled off the highway into my subdivision, I noticed one of my Red-tailed Hawks frantically flying overhead, but he (or she) was not alone. Hot on the Hawks red tail were three Starlings. The Starlings were dipping and weaving, trying their best to attack the swift Hawk. I can only surmise Mr. or Mrs. Red-tail had decided on baby Starlings for lunch. As Starlings are the one bird I dislike, I was rooting for the Hawks.

The Red-tailed Hawk has a raspy scream sounding exactly like a raptor should sound. It is this shrill calling that alerts me to the adventures of my Hawks. I enjoy sitting in the backyard and watching their aerial acrobatics.

The largest female Red-tailed Hawk only weighs about three pounds, but it is still one of the largest birds on the continent. The Hawks typically hunt in pairs, each guarding opposite sides of the same tree in order to catch a squirrel.

Both male and female Hawks help with building the nest, many times just refurbishing their nest from a previous years – this is what my Hawks do, because their nest is always in the same tall tree. Usually the nests are tall piles of dry sticks and the inner aspect is lined with bark strips, fresh foliage, and dry vegetation. Red-tailed Hawks typically put their nests in the crowns of tall trees where they have a commanding view of the landscape. They have also been known to nest on a cliff ledge or on artificial structures such as window ledges and billboard platforms.

Courting Red-tailed Hawks can be seen soaring in wide circles very high in the sky. The male will make a steep dive, and then shoot up again at an equally steep angle. He performs this ritual several times before approaching the female from above. He will extend his legs and briefly touch the female before flying away. Occasionally, the pair will grab onto each other by clasping talons and spiraling downward – they will then pull away before coming near the ground. Mated pairs typically stay together until one of the pair dies.

After courtship, the mother usually lays three eggs and sits on the eggs to keep them warm while the father hunts and feeds her. The babies will hatch after 30 days and they are covered with white down. The babies learn to fly just before they are two months old, but they still depend on their parents for food. During the summer, the fledglings follow their parents around, watching and learning how to hunt. Because Red-tailed Hawks are very territorial, it may be hard for the young hawks to find a new place to live. They typically leave the parents after the first year, but they are two or three years old before they mate and start raising babies of their own.

I’ve had the privilege of watching my pair go through the mating ritual several times and it is beautiful to behold. For the past two summers, this ritual has produced two hatchlings each year. When I saw the first set of babies learning to fly, it was so fascinating. All summer and fall I watched the babies learning to hunt with the parents, but then when colder weather was here to stay, I lost track of the babies.

By the following spring, the babies were not longer flying high with the parents. I’m not sure where the babies migrated to, but they haven’t stayed around with their parents. I guess when young Hawks fly the coop they stay gone.

Red-tailed hawks usually live six to seven years in the wild, so I’m preparing for my pair to be gone in the next few years. I just hope they are replaced by another pair of lovely hawks – maybe the offspring of my current pair - because there is nothing better than forgetting the stresses of the day by watching the free forms of the Red-tailed Hawk.