BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Read up on the red tails
"There's a chicken hawk!" shouted my cousin while he pointed at the bird as it left its perch high in the canopy of a nearby tree.
The large hawk was a magnificent looking bird and I remember it well as it flashed its light-colored belly, banking into the wind, beating its long and broad wings and lifting itself into the air. We were boys of just 12, exploring the oak-filled woodland behind my family's barn on a summer afternoon with nothing more to do than pretend that we were Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket surviving off the land, collecting raspberries to eat and getting lost in our wild imaginations.
If not one of the most well-known and widespread raptors in North America, the red-tailed hawk is certainly one of the North America's most conspicuous. The large hawk's broad wings—which spread to more than 4 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.
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.
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 to 90-percent of redtail diet are 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 like pigeons and upland game birds. 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. 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 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—hawks and their kin are diurnal hunters with stiff and noisy feathers. In order for a hawk like a red tail to fill its belly, it boils down to mostly surprise, speed, and agility.
I was fortunate enough to see all three of these attributes in action one time several years ago. While sitting comfortably inside an observation blind on a sharp-tailed grouse lek watching dancing grouse all around me perform their amazing courtship rituals, I became incredulous when the dancing male grouse suddenly stopped. For nearly a half an hour, the 16 birds didn't move a feather. They sat crouched as low to the ground as they could get while remaining completely motionless.
About the time I wondered if the show would ever begin again, I thought that perhaps a raptor or a mammalian predator might be nearby, although the only other creatures I could see were a pair of sandhill cranes walking along the field's edge some distance away.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I saw a shadow, followed immediately by a red-tailed hawk dropping abruptly from the sky directly above one of the sharptails. The hawk had its legs extended while simultaneously beating its wings in a backstroke manner to break its descent. As the hawk attempted to capture the grouse, the grouse exploded from the short grass and rocketed itself across the field to the safety of the brushland. None of the remaining birds moved, but the hawk, having missed its meal, flew west and disappeared.
The red-tailed hawk that I observed—the species that my cousin so enthusiastically called a "chicken hawk"—nearly got its chicken that day. Perhaps the next grouse won't be as lucky. Or if not the grouse, the mouse, squirrel or rabbit. That this beautiful buteo soars and hunts Minnesota's bountiful countryside is a sign of a healthy and functioning ecosystem as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.