Red Hawks

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The Red-tailed Hawk (and the Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned) were once called  “Chicken Hawks” and the Red-shouldered the “Hen Hawk.” Undoubtedly they took a few chickens, but only rarely. Like most stories of wild predators taking domestic animals, their impact is usually exaggerated. There’s one story about a farmer letting loose a flock of 50 Cornish Hen chicks, coming back an hour later and finding 48 of them dead and then complaining about birds of prey. More likely it was a neighbor’s dog or cat, but poor hawks got the blame. A survey done by the U.S. Fish a Wildlife Service a few years ago estimated the total monetary damage done by all raptors on agricultural property was less than $200,000. That’s NATIONALLY for ALL hawks and owls!

I was watching a Red-shouldered Hawk in my backyard the other day, listening to its distinctive cries; it’s certainly one of the most vocal hawks. It had a lizard in its beak, but they eat a variety of small mammals, birds, and even crayfish. Although “red-shouldered” seems a misnomer as their entire breast is reddish brown, that’s only the California variety. Four other forms of the Red-shouldered are found, mostly east of the Mississippi. The larger Red-tailed Hawk, by contrast, is found all over the U.S. and Canada. The Red-shouldered Hawks of the eastern U.S. are told by their red shoulders rather than breast, but all have barred wings and tail. Red-tailed Hawks tend to prefer open habitat but the Red-shouldered Hawk tends to prefer more wooded areas. It also seems to be less fearful of people.

Red-tailed Hawks sport a variety of plumage from very light to very dark, but they also have a dark breast band contrasting with a lighter chest. Red-tailed Hawks live about 6-8 years; they don’t get the red (reddish brown, actually) tail until they are three years old. Red-shouldered Hawks look display their adult plumage their second year and live only about 2-3 years.

The flight of the Red-shouldered Hawk is quick, with 3-5 quick shallow flaps followed by gliding. Soaring, the wingtips of the red-shouldered hawk droop slightly. The Red-shouldered has a longer tail and it does not hover. The Red-tailed Hawk has slower and deeper wing beats. With its wings in a slight V shape. The flight differences relate to each species’ preferred habitat. Red-shouldered Hawks prefer wooded areas, their longer tail helping in maneuvering; soaring would not be helpful. Red-tailed Hawks prefer open areas and shorter wider tails help them to soar to find prey.

Ever wonder how a hawk finds its small prey from hundreds of feet in the air? Partly because its eyesight is much sharper than ours. Hawks have five times as many photoreceptor cells in their eyes than humans do. There is also evidence that hawks us their ultraviolet vision to detect prey  because the urine of some prey species like mice and voles reflects UV radiation. The fresher the urine trail, the brighter the UV trail.

Because they are so common and easily trained as capable hunters, the majority of hawks captured for falconry in the United States are red-tails. Falconers are permitted to take only passage hawks (which have left the nest, are on their own, but are less than a year old) so as to not affect the breeding population. Adults, which may be breeding or rearing chicks, may not be taken for falconry purposes and it is illegal to do so. Passage red-tailed hawks are also preferred by falconers because these younger birds have not yet developed the adult behaviors which would make them more difficult to train.


5 thoughts on “Red Hawks”

  1. I believe your statement about when a Red-tailed Hawk gets its red tail is incorrect. Other sources, as well as personal observation, indicate the red tail feathers appear during molt at the beginning of the second year.

  2. Ralph Lansford

    Hi, could you help me out on an ID please ? My best guess is a juvie eastern redtail. 2022-6-13 at roughly 8pm I saw a bird fly across my shady backyard in Round Rock TX, and it flew under tree canopies and perched on a live oak limb about 8 feet high in the next yard where I had a clear view of it in my Nikon Monarch 10×24 bins. At first I thought it was a whitetail dove as it looked gray and white in flight, but it flew a bit differently (more gliding and less flapping) and looked a little too big for a dove (but smaller than redtails I’ve had in my yard). Generally grayish on top (it was in a heavily shaded place with the daylight fading a little), with a black crown. Generally off-white underneath. “Brown and white stripy pants” – I guess a chestnut and ivory, like the stripes on a cooper’s hawk. Stripy chestnut tail. It was perched facing away from me (and my Sibley’s unfortunately has no perched pics of them) but occasionally looked to the left. Bottom part of face was whitish, top part grayish. Yellow or orange eye. What do you think ?

  3. Pingback: Differences: Hawk, Falcon, Eagle, Osprey, And Kite – All The Differences

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