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).
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.
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.
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.
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.