Red-tailed Hawks

Published 4:15 pm Monday, November 8, 2010

The largest and most obvious species throughout the year in Western North Carolina is the large, brown and white Red-tailed Hawk, which prefers to hunt along the roadsides where the vegetation is short. With its extremely keen eyesight it scans the ground for prey and its preferred food throughout the year is predominantly rodents, with insects, reptiles and birds making up the rest.

The Red-tailed Hawk is with us throughout the year, but during the winter months its numbers are augmented by many visitors from further north. Red-tails are large, bulky raptors with dirty white underparts and brown upperparts. Adults sport brick red tails, whilst the young birds have brown barred tails. These generically shaped large birds of prey are common throughout our area and their upright shapes are frequently seen perched in roadside trees. But as in several birds of prey, Red-tailed Hawks come in a wide range of color phases.

The standard Red-tail is the one I have described above, but they can appear almost completely black, such as those from the western United States, or even with partially or totally white plumage. Most will show at least some rufous coloring in the tail, but this can be so pale as to be invisible.

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The Red-tailed Hawk is probably the most variable large raptor in the country and has been mistaken for every other species, including eagles. However, there are many other differences between these birds, such as body shape, flight pattern, habitat etc.

Because Red-tails are such common birds, it is possible to watch and enjoy many of their behavioral habits. Display starts early in the spring and the birds make lazy circles in the sky, often seeming to fly as a single bird. Their preferred nest site offers views over the countryside. Here in the eastern United States, a tree is usually the chosen site, which can be used year after year if conditions are right. 2-3 eggs are laid and the chicks usually hatch after about 30 days. A month or so later, the chicks are learning to fend for themselves and it is during the fall when we get all of the immature Red-tailed Hawks without red tails. Identification can be a little complicated at this stage, but usually the size and shape of the young bird easily indicates a Red-tail.

Like all birds of prey, Red-tailed Hawks are a valuable part of the world around us, and do an excellent job keeping the local rodent population under control. They should not be harmed or disturbed at any time.

Simon Thompson has lived in WNC for the past 16 years. He owns and operates his own birding tour company, Ventures Birding Tours.

If you have birding questions, please drop Simon an e-mail at the above site.