Red Tailed Hawk On Squirrel, photo by B Rothauser
It was a black speck in the sky, gradually coming closer, and then I saw that it was a bird gliding gracefully, effortlessly, circling above me. It was a red-tailed hawk, the most common hawk in North America. Years of observation have shown that red-tailed hawks can easily mold themselves to any surrounding, but these birds prefer a habitat that is open. Hawks usually inhabit places like deserts and fields, perhaps to make it easier to find prey. They also like to have high-perching places nearby from which they can watch for prey.
Red-tails are known as very able hunters. They are widely reputed to have visual acuity several times that of a normal human being. In fact, hawks can see a mouse a half mile away. This is due to the many photoreceptors in the bird’s retina, an exceptional number of nerves connecting these receptors to the brain, and a small indented area of the retina which magnifies the central portion of the visual field. Hawks also see in color.
A fledgling hawk is fed by its parents until it leaves the nest for good. It will leave its parents’ nest as early as six weeks old. As the hawk grows older, it begins to act on its ancestral instinct to hunt for itself.
While other birds of prey like falcons use their mouths to kill their prey, red-tailed hawks both catch and kill prey with their claws, or talons. They also use their talons dismember a kill before swallowing it. A hawk’s preferred time for hunting is usually just before night fall, when daylight begins to lessen.
Even though red-tailed hawks are known as being a violent predator, this bird actually has a peaceful side. The hawk’s main mode of transportation is flight. When it flies, the hawk flaps its wings rapidly, and then uses that momentum to glide smoothly and gracefully through the air. Hawks typically move at 20 to 40 miles per hour.
Red-tails also are known for their unusual mating practices. The method this bird uses to reproduce is different from that of most other birds. The male and female will fly together up into the air in a circular motion. Once the two get to a certain height, the male will dive toward the female and then they will rise back to the height again. The two birds will repeat this until finally the male latches onto the female and they begin to free-fall down to earth.
Red-tailed hawks are monogamous and will keep the same mate their entire lives. In one year, a female hawk will lay about five eggs. Both the male and the female will watch the nest and take care of the eggs for about a month, until they hatch. Males and females also create their nests together, and will improve it together during mating season. One wonders if members of the hawk family may be mimicking some members of the human family.
A red-tailed hawk’s diet is very predictable, in that it includes a variety of small animals. However, most hawks are opportunistic feeders and they feed on anything they can catch. Some of these small animals may include snakes, lizards, mice, rabbits, squirrels, and any other type of small game that is found on the ground. More specifically, hawks like to eat smaller birds like doves, and bugs like grasshoppers and crickets.
The red-tailed hawk is protected under the Migratory Treaty Bird Act. This covers their residence in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. They do not have low population numbers at this point, but many people believe that without such protection their numbers would be low.
Hawks also provide us with a metaphor for our political life. When talking about politics, some people use the term “war hawk,” or simply “hawk” for short. This refers to someone favoring war in a debate over military action. “War hawks” are the opposite of “war doves.” The terms derive from the fact that hawks are predators which attack and feed on other animals, whereas doves mostly eat seeds and fruit, and are historically a symbol of peace.