Summit Outside: The smart, sharp-eyed red-tailed hawk

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Summit Daily/Mark Fox

Looking up against the intense blue Colorado sky, a feathered aeronaut soars effortlessly on widespread wings, seeming to rise, dip and circle on currents of air; the broad, rounded tail a rich, russet red.

This is probably a red-tailed hawk, the most common member of the buzzard hawk family. Red-tailed hawks inhabit our state year-round, moving within the state depending on the season.

The red-tail is one of the largest hawks, with adults weighing between 2 and 4 pounds. As with most raptors, the female is nearly a third larger than the male and may have a wing span of 56 inches.

Though the markings and hue vary, the red-tailed hawk’s underbelly is lighter than the back, and they have a dark brown band across the belly formed by vertical patterns in their feathers. The characteristic red tail is uniformly brick-red above, and pink below. The bill is short and dark and hooked in the characteristic shape of all raptors (meat-eating birds). They have short, broad tails and thick, chunky wings. The legs and the feet are yellow.

Immature birds can be readily identified at close range by their yellowish irises. As the bird attains full maturity over the course of three to four years, the iris slowly becomes a reddish-brown.

These amazing birds have extremely good eyesight: about eight times more acute than the best human eyesight, as they have many more photoreceptors in the retina than humans (1,000,000/ square mm compared to 200,000 in the human eye). They also have a very high number of nerves connecting the receptors to the brain, a second set of eye muscles not found in other animals, and an indented fovea (part of the eye, located in the center of the macula region of the retina) which magnifies the central part of the visual field.

Not only do they have acute vision but they are very intelligent. A Canadian scientist devised a method of measuring avian IQ in terms of their innovation in feeding habits, and hawks were named among the most intelligent birds based on this scale. This is amazing, since we have discovered that the Corvus family of birds – which includes crows and ravens – can use tools and can imitate many other sounds. The term “bird-brain” implying little intelligence is a misnomer. The more we study birds, the more we appreciate how adaptable and intelligent they are.

This hawk is a fierce hunter that will perch on top of a pole or high branch, awaiting the opportunity to swoop down on its prey. They can pluck a songbird from the air or a small rodent from the ground. Almost 90 percent of the red-tailed hawks’ diet is composed of small rodents, and their sharp talons are their main weapon. All hawks hunt in the daytime but will use the subdued evening light for cover when pursuing prey.

The red-tailed hawk has a hoarse, rasping scream that is most commonly heard while soaring.

Mating and nest-building begins in early spring. Mating involves spectacular aerial displays by both males and females. They circle and soar to great heights, and plummet to treetop levels by folding their wings, and they will repeat this display as many as five or six times in a row.

Both males and females assist in nest construction, and the nest sites may be used from year to year by the same pair. It is believed hawks mate for life.

The nest is large, flat, shallow, and made of sticks and twigs about 1/2 inch in diameter and are located 35 to 75 feet high in the forks of large trees. They will repair any damage to the nest and add layers of new nesting material each year.

The female usually lays two white to bluish-white eggs with reddish spots and splotches. She sits on the eggs for 28-32 days, and while she is on the nest the male hunts for both of them, delivering her food to the nest.

The new hatchlings are covered with white down, grow slowly and require much food, which is provided by both parents. When parents leave the nest, the young utter a loud wailing “klee-uk,” repeated several times, which means “I’m hungry, feed me.”

They remain in the nest for up to seven weeks. During the last week or more, the young, which now have grown almost as large as the parent birds, practice their flying skills by flapping their wings and balancing in the wind on the edge of the nest. Soon they will launch themselves into the air. Red-tails typically do not reach breeding age until they are 3 years old.

Because they are common, easily trained and capable hunters, the majority of hawks captured for falconry in the United States are red-tails. Falconers are only allowed to take what are called “passage hawks” – young birds that have left the nest, are on their own, and less than a year old. It is actually illegal to take adults, which may be breeding or rearing chicks. Passage red-tailed hawks are also preferred by falconers because these young birds are more easily to train.

In our state, there is the Colorado Hawking Club, which practices this “time honored sport dating back centuries”.

The red-tailed hawk also has significance in Native American culture. Its feathers are considered sacred by some tribes, and are used in religious ceremonies.

Native American legends and lore say that if a red-tailed hawk lands near you, it means he is bringing a message from the Great Spirit. In some Native American traditions the red tailed hawk carries the role of visionary and messenger, and “the hawk reminded people that they had to be awake and aware.”

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.

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