That Wasn’t An Eagle You Heard

You might think during these dreary, gray winter days that nature is dormant and there is not much to see. But here in Connecticut, and throughout much of the country, hawk-watching is easy. Hard to believe, but one of the best places to see hawks in winter is from your car. Please, keep your eyes on the road, but next time you are traveling along a highway, you may well glimpse out of the corner of your eye a large, bulky brown bird perched on a light pole or dead tree. Nine times out of ten, you’ve seen a Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

Red-tailed Hawks often hunt from a perch such as light pole, tree, or power line. Notice the bird’s light, upper belly and band of darker feathers half way down, a great field mark that be seen from quite a distance. Photo by @Frank Schulenburg.
Red-shouldered Hawks can be told from Red-tailed Hawks by having a rusty-red shoulder and belly. They are also smaller and less bulky looking. Photo by Cephas, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although redtails can differ in color, one of the easiest ways to tell them from other hawks is by their large size and “belly band.” This is typically a white upper chest with a line of darker feathers on the bird’s belly that starts half-way down. This can be seen from quite a distance. Adults have a rust tail easy to see in flight. Another related winter resident, the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus), is smaller, with rusty red patches on its shoulders, a reddish belly, and a banded black-and-white tail. Redtails have broader wings and fly with slower wing beats compared with the Red-shouldered Hawk’s more “nervous” flight pattern and faster flight. Also look for the clear “windows” at the base of the primary wing feathers in a flying Red-shouldered Hawk.

Flying overhead, the Red-tailed hawk’s rusty-red tail can be seen from quite a distance. Notice the “chunky-looking” body and wide, rounded wings. Photo by Ron Knight from Seaford, East Sussex, United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.
A Red-shouldered Hawk, like this juvenile, has a black and white banded tail. Notice how the sun lights up the outer primary feathers, creating “windows” on each side. These light patches are a great field mark for a Red-shouldered Hawk in flight. Photo by Andy  Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

It is easier to spot Red-tailed Hawks in the winter than in the summer, because there are more of them. Redtails are partial migrants. They typically migrate to southern areas to find more food and better weather conditions. But some birds stay here year-round, so in winter we see both migrants and permanent residents.

A Red-tailed Hawk often hunts from a perch. Typically, more than 80% of its diet consists of rodents such as voles, mice, and squirrels. It will also eat rabbits and birds—including the European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)—as well as snakes and carrion.

This Red-tailed Hawk is carrying a snake, which is hawk gourmet food! Hawks such as redtails are really important for controlling populations of rodents and other animals. Photo by Joshua Tree National Park, NPS/Kurt Moses, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Redtails are quite adaptable. They are seen in open habitats: forest edges, fields and pastures, parks, and even in cities. You might have heard of Pale Male, who hatched in 1990 in New York City and helped establish a line of urban-dwelling hawks there. Ten years ago a pair of Red-tailed Hawks built a nest downtown near the New Haven Green in Connecticut, in the arms of a statue on the New Haven County Courthouse! Urban birds live quite well on Eastern Gray Squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), Norway Rats (Rattus norvegicus), and other rodents.

Pale Male, the famous light-colored Red-tailed Hawk which nested in New York City in the 1990s. Photo by jeremy Seto, CC BY-SA 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Red-tailed Hawk is in a group of hawks called buteos, which have wide, rounded wings and a fan-shaped tail for soaring. With these the birds catch warm, spiraling air currents called thermals that help them rise and then soar to other places. The redtail is the largest buteo in the eastern United States. The Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) in the western US is larger. Redtails are one of the few birds that you’ll see “kiting,” or soaring motionless in the wind.

Sometimes while a redtail is soaring you’ll hear its raspy, two to three second keeeer! scream. Hollywood has taken notice. Ironically, our mighty national bird, the Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), makes short, weak little chirps. When you hear the screech of a flying eagle in a movie, it’s actually the redtail’s call, much to the dismay of many a naturalist. My wife gets frustrated with me when I keep mentioning wrong bird songs and other inaccuracies about nature in the cinema.

Redtails will be courting soon, which is in March in Connecticut. In courtship, flying pairs have been known to lock talons and dramatically spiral downward. They will make a nest of sticks usually 40 to 75 feet (about 12 to 23 meters) above ground in a large tree that provides a clear flight path. They’ll produce one to five eggs in late March and early April that hatch about a month later. The young birds will fledge in 42 to 46 days. Adults usually mate for life and if one mate dies the other finds a new partner. Redtails can live 10 to 20 years.

Predators generally, and hawks in particular, are often maligned and misunderstood. As predatory birds that hunt during the day when free-range chickens are out and about, hawks are not always appreciated by farmers for doing what comes naturally. But like all predators, they have a critical role to play. At this time of year, when it seems there is little to see, it’s nice to know there’s plenty of great hawk-watching to be had.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

9 thoughts on “That Wasn’t An Eagle You Heard

  1. I know what you mean about wrong bird calls in movies. Recently I watched “The Pale Blue Eye” ,a murder mystery set in West Point, NY in the middle of winter. To create an aura of enchantment, it presents repeated calls of the loon. No, I don’t think so!


    1. Yes, isn’t that funny Walt? In all the British murder mysteries, there is always a mist and a vixen red fox screaming. At least that is somewhat accurate, but they’re not doing that all the time! Thx, Jim


  2. Nice details, Jim. I always look for the Red tails along our highways when I travel. I always love to see them diving for prey and the weeds and grasses


      1. Hi Jim,. Good to hear from you. That hawk must have been close. Good thing you (or it) were able to avoid each other 😁. I hope all is well with you and your family. We are all well here. Yours, Wiz.


    1. Hi Jim,. Good to hear from you. That hawk must have been close. Good thing you (or it) were able to avoid each other 😁. I hope all is well with you and your family. We are all well here. Yours, Wiz.


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