Brenda is a female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) who came to us in February of 2002 after she was found hanging by her wing in a tree. Upon examination, it was discovered that she had been shot with a pellet gun multiple times. Although her left wing is still completely intact, arthritis has taken over and she cannot fully extend that wing. This prevents her from being released back into the wild. Brenda is a dark morph red-tailed hawk. This morph is more commonly found in the Northwest than any other part of the US.
Brenda’s coloring is different from the medium-brown color of most red-tailed Hawks. Other than her red tail feathers, all of her other feathers are a deep, rich brown color. This dark color pattern is called a “dark morph”, or melanistic, and is found in no more than 20% of the red-tailed hawk population.
Red-tailed Hawks are one of the most widely distributed hawks in North America. These common hawks range from central Alaska and northern Canada in the summer to Panama and the West Indies in the winter. Red-tails prefer to inhabit open fields and deserts containing some forested areas. They also adapt well to urban and tropical rainforest environments. Red-tailed Hawks build wide platform nests out of sticks, or may re-use one built in a previous year. They will build the nest on the top of a tall tree, a platform, cliff ledge, or even a building ledge. These nests are sometimes stolen by secondary nesters such as Great Horned Owls.
There are no physical characteristics that distinguish males from females, although females on average tend to be slightly larger than males.
They mate for life which means a mated pair will usually stay together until one of the pair dies. During courtship, the male puts on a display of diving and swooping, and may occasionally clasp talons with the female and spiral through the air.
Red-tailed Hawks are opportunistic hunters and will eat animals as diverse as rabbits, squirrels, snakes, lizards, insects and birds. However, 85% – 90% of their diet is made up of small mammals – mainly rabbits, squirrels, and mice/rats. They are also able to distinguish between venomous and nonvenomous snakes. They hunt venomous snakes by using a special “matador” move. They fling their wings out in front of the snake to distract it. The snake will strike at the feathers, which have no blood flow and will not harm the hawk (much like if a snake struck a human’s hair). The hawk will then grab the snake and crush its head with its powerful feet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjmJla-q880). Occasionally, if it is not venomous, Red-tailed Hawks will kill a snake by flying it up into the air and letting gravity do the work for them by dropping the snake on a hard surface.
Red-tailed Hawks are very well adapted to locate prey from great distances. Their eyesight is at least 8-times more powerful than that of humans! In other words, if a hawk were to stand at one end of a football field, he would be able to see a grasshopper jump across the end zone on the opposite end with ease! They usually sit in a tree or on a telephone pole and survey the area for food before diving quickly to pounce on their prey.
Other members of the Buteo family found in Washington include the Swainson’s hawk, the Rough-legged Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk. The Swainson’s Hawk visits this area in the summer, when it migrates up from South America. In flight, it is identifiable by white underwing coverts, and dark flight feathers. The Rough-legged Hawk is in this area in the winter, when it migrates south from the Arctic, where they breed. In flight, it is identifiable by a very prominent black wrist patch, and dark primary feather tips. Both of these birds tend to hunt smaller prey than the Red-tail, allowing them to coexist peacefully where their ranges overlap. Ferruginous hawks are rare summer visitors to Eastern Washington. They are the largest Buteo in North America and can be distinguished by the dark reddish “V” made by their legs in flight. The Red-tailed Hawk does not migrate unless local conditions become intolerable. However, they will do a range shift where they move to another territory for a time.
Red-Tailed Hawks are members of the genus Buteo consisting of the larger soaring hawks. Buteos are known for their broad wings and relatively short tails, which distinguishes them from other diurnal raptors: accipiters, falcons, and eagles. They can often be found circling over fields in search of food. This circling is eased by warm air thermals rising up into the sky. This method of travel is efficient for the birds and expends little energy.
There are around 14 subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks. The two most recognisable subspecies are the Harlan’s hawk, and the Krider’s hawk. Harlan’s hawks have dark plumage overall and a mottled grey and black tail. Krider’s tend to have white underparts and head, large patches of white on upper, and lacks red tail.