Monday, August 30, 2010

Red-Tailed Hawks

By Susan Thurn,
CNHM Director of Education

This was the week of the red-tailed hawk for me, as not only did I see them in flight, but I actually held one in my hands. The bird I held was a bird that can no longer live in the wild due to a dislocated shoulder. Just seeing this bird inspired awe inside of me. We often see red-tailed hawks soaring above open fields, circling while looking for their prey. Other times we may see them perched on a telephone pole. I would also guess that we all have heard the call of a red-tailed hawk, as Hollywood seems to have chosen the red-tailed hawk as the call on almost every movie!

Holding this red-tailed hawk in my arms was most amazing. The glove that protected my arm and provided the perch for the hawk just highlighted the amazing yellow coloring of their feet. Although it is one of the largest hawks in the United States, about 22 inches high and with a wingspan up to 52 inches, it only weighs about three pounds. The colors included a darker brown back, with paler brown below, a streaked chest, and a dark bar between its shoulder and wrist as seen from underneath. The red tail for which it is named is brick-red above and pinker below.

Red-tailed hawks will eat a variety of mammals that includes mice, voles, shrews, rabbits, snakes, and squirrels. They are capable of eating prey up to five pounds in weight. Red-tailed hawks have been observed hunting as pairs, each taking a side of a tree while trying to catch squirrels.

Very territorial, red-tailed hawks will aggressively pursue other hawks, eagles, or great-horned owls. Other behavior includes an elaborate courtship ritual in which the pair locks their talons together while in flight, spiraling down toward the ground before letting go. Their flight is a soaring, shallow v-shape called a dihedral, with very little wing flapping as they conserve energy. They occasionally hover above the ground while steadily beating their wings.

I was most impressed with the red-tailed hawk eyesight as this bird watched me like a hawk, responding to my every movement. Indeed their eyesight is thought to be 8 times better than that of a human. A red-tailed hawk can see a tiny mouse while flying 100 feet in the air! That is impressive, and makes it worth exploring red-tailed hawks from our own back yards.

For over 40 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at

1 comment:

  1. Have you read "Read Tails In Love"?It's about a pair of redtails in Central Park.Lovely book.

    Ruth Lauritzen