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Blane Klemek: Red-tailed hawk is one tough raptor

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An alert person recently noticed an injured red-tailed hawk in a roadside ditch near Hitterdal, Minn.,, which is located in northeast Clay County about 30 miles northwest of Detroit Lakes.

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The kind individual took the time and carefully collected the injured bird in a box and delivered it to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Area Headquarters in Detroit Lakes. He hoped that the DNR could find someone to help the bird.

A telephone call was quickly placed to the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Raptor Center. Less than 24 hours later, raptor center volunteer Jim Johnston arrived at the DNR facility to pick up and transport the hawk to the center.

I asked Johnston what the otherwise healthy looking hawk’s prognosis would be given the fact that the bird appeared to have a broken wing. He replied, “Pretty good; you wouldn’t believe what they can do with an injured bird. They’re amazing!”

And before he left with our injured hawk, he handed me a couple of brochures with information about how I’d be able to track the bird’s care and hopeful rehabilitation.

He also said, “And if the wing can be rehabbed, we’ll bring the hawk back to Hitterdal and release it.”

Red-tailed hawks are common raptors, or buteos, that range throughout Minnesota. These birds-of-prey are generalists, meaning their diet is wide and varied. And though they inhabit various landscapes, 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 to 90 percent of the redtail’s diet is small rodents such as ground squirrels, tree squirrels and mice and voles. Other prey animals include rabbits and hares, snakes, lizards and amphibians, and sometimes medium- to large-sized birds such as 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 ends 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 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 them — to consume.

One might wonder how such large birds of prey such as 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 — 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.

If not one of the most well-known and widespread raptors in North America, the red-tailed hawk is certainly one of the 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 2½ pounds. Only the ferruginous hawk is heavier.

Despite the large size, variation in plumage coloration among 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, underwing coloration, flight pattern, vocalizations, nest type and so on.

Furthermore, juveniles of each species are colored differently than the adults. And further still, some species of buteos’ second-year juveniles’ appearance differs from both the first-year juvenile and the adult plumage. It’s no wonder that separate field guidebooks are available for just hawks.

The red-tailed hawk, perhaps our most beloved species of hawk occurring in Minnesota, often observed perching on top of round hay bales in a field facing the early morning sun, or perched on utility and fence posts, is a handsome, elegant soaring buteo.

Indeed, and in the case of the injured redtail making the unlikely journey to a veterinary hospital in St. Paul, it is my hope that we might observe this particular bird flying once again over the countryside of Hitterdal as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

I’ll keep you posted.

BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com

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