Day Trips

Red-tailed hawks are the sentinels of the highways

Day Trips
Photo by Gerald E. Mcleod

Red-tailed hawks are the sentinels of the highways. Often seen sitting on telephone wires, the steely-eyed birds of prey take advantage of the mowed right-of-ways to hunt for a dinner of rodents.

About the size of a small house cat, red-tailed hawks' plumage ranges in color from light to dark brown with distinctive brown ripple bands on their white chests. In the sunlight, their tails often have a cinnamon hue. Their effortless flight is a thing of beauty as they soar above their hunting grounds and maneuver among the tree branches. The powerful yellow talons appear oversized for the body.

One of the most common birds of prey in the United States, red-tailed hawks are of the buteo genus of hawks and range all across Texas and much of North America, says Mark Lockwood of the Natural Resources Program with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

"They are quite adaptable, so they utilize a wide variety of habitats," Lockwood said. They often become front-page news when they nest on ledges of tall buildings in Boston and New York. This past spring, I had a pair set up a maternity nest in a tall oak tree in my front yard. The fledgling has been fun to watch as it grew from a fuzzy ball of white feathers peeking over the edge of the nest to a teenager testing his wings.

Typically, red-tailed hawks build stick nests in trees or on rocky cliffs. Females lay one to three eggs, and the newborn flies in two months or so. With the parents standing watch, the youngster in my yard took short flights among the high branches.

Lockwood says that red-tailed hawk pairs often form long-term bonds. The male helps with the offspring from sitting on the egg to bringing food to the chick. Their preferred meal is small mammals, snakes, and, occasionally, fresh road kill. "They primarily feed on items that can be trapped on the ground, as opposed to prey in trees," he said. "But they will take prey on the wing as well."

In my neighborhood, they have a bountiful food supply. I have noticed a decrease in the squirrel population. Fewer of the fuzzy-tailed rodents digging up plants is a definite advantage of having the birds around. One morning I saw a couple of smaller birds harassing the young hawk while a parent sat watching from a high branch. It was a couple of very gutsy mockingbirds.

Other than protecting the nest from disturbance, Lockwood says there probably isn't much I can do to make my yard more attractive to the birds. If the birds feel safe in the neighborhood, they may stay for several years. Most Texas red-tailed hawks are sedentary, but red-tails from colder climates will migrate to our milder winters. The beautiful birds are an important part of a healthy environment.

1,045th in a series. Collect them all. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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red-tailed hawks, Mark Lockwood, Natural Resources Program, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

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