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Blane Klemek column: Red-tailed hawks are beautiful buteos

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The advent of the large round hay bales that are so common a sight scattered on fields throughout American farms and ranches, have also become favorite perching sites for a very familiar species of raptor.

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Indeed, while traveling roadways that weave amongst these haylands, red-tailed hawks calmly sitting on top of these temporary lookouts, often facing the warm sun, their whitish breasts showing brilliantly, are reassuring sights.

A raptor of fairly open landscapes, "redtails" are among the most observed bird-of-prey in Minnesota. Other common raptors that I can think of include the American kestrel, bald eagle and turkey vulture. Yet it is the red-tailed hawk that many of us think of when a hawk comes to mind: a big, beautiful and bold buteo.

The cry of the red-tailed hawk is also the ubiquitous raptor vocalization shamelessly dubbed into untold Hollywood movies. It is often the case that the calls one would expect to hear from, for example, eagles and vultures, are replaced with the calls of red-tailed hawks, no matter how annoying it is to those of us in the know. (Why film producers do this has always bewildered me).

If not one of the most well-known and widespread raptors in North America, the red-tailed hawk is certainly one of the continent's most conspicuous. The large hawk's broad wings -which spread to more than four feet - are distinctly "buteo" (that is, of hawks with broad rounded wings, comparatively short tails, and soaring flight). As well, redtails are heavyweights for hawks, about two and a half pounds. Only the Ferruginous hawk is heavier.

Despite the large size of red-tailed hawks, variation in plumage coloration amongst individuals across their range - in addition to abundant similarities with other species of buteos -tends to confound even the most ardent of birders. Positive identification is often the combination of several factors, not the least of which includes silhouette, habitat observed in, underwing coloration, flight pattern, vocalizations, nest type and so on.

For instance, red-tailed hawks inhabiting the Great Plains are pale with a whitish head. Even the tail that gives this species its common name is duller in coloration. There are also darker phased redtails, which occur in the West and parts of northwest Canada. Some of these lighter and darker phased birds are also given names that denote their plumage variation. "Krider's" redtails are the light-phase race, whereas "Harlan's" red-tailed hawks are a dark-phased redtail.

Furthermore, juveniles are colored differently than the adults. And further still, some second-year juveniles' appearance differs from both the first-year juvenile and the adult plumage. Depending on your favorite field guidebook, some red-tailed hawk juveniles and adults are referred to as "intermediate juveniles" and "intermediate adults." It's no wonder that separate field guidebooks are available for just hawks!

Redtails are common raptors that range throughout all of Minnesota. These birds of prey are generalists, meaning their diet is wide and varied. And though they inhabit various landscapes as well, red-tailed hawks prefer hunting in open areas with plentiful perch-sites such as the stout branches of large trees and on top of fence posts and highline poles. From these vantages redtails survey the ground below for suitable prey.

Menu items for this handsome buteo are usually mammalian. In fact, research has concluded that 85-90 percent of redtail diets are small rodents such as ground squirrels, tree squirrels, mice and voles. Other prey animals include rabbits and hares, snakes, lizards and amphibians, and sometimes medium- to large-sized birds like pigeons and upland gamebirds. There are also records of fox pups, stray cats and even skunks becoming redtail meals.

As with all raptors, a red-tailed hawk's main weapon used to capture and secure prey are long and sharp talons on the end of each of their eight toes. Additionally, but unlike the weak beaks of owls, the strongly hooked beaks of hawks (accipiters, falcons, and eagles, too) are used to tear chunks of flesh from carcasses.

A hawk's hunting style varies between species of course, but the red-tailed mode of hunting is typical of most. As already mentioned, redtails frequently utilize high vantages to search for prey from. From these perches, if prey is spotted, the red-tailed hawk departs quickly and swoops swiftly to strike its prey with open talons. Once captured and subdued, a redtail will either begin feeding immediately or fly away to a safe place - carrying its prey with it - to consume.

One might wonder how such large birds of prey like red-tailed hawks manage catching fleet-of-foot or quick-winged creatures in the first place. After all, and unlike owls, which are primarily nighttime, silent-winged hunters, red-tailed hawks and their kin are diurnal hunters with stiff and noisy feathers. In order for a hawk like a redtail to fill its belly, it boils down to mostly surprise, speed and agility.

It's gratifying to know that red-tailed hawks, those beautiful buteos that perch, soar and hunt throughout Minnesota's countryside, are doing very well.

Found all through North America from Alaska to Mexico and coast-to-coast, including some urban settings, observing or hearing one is very likely as we get out enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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