The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Roadside Sentinels: The Red Tailed Hawk

By Spike Knuth © 1990
Information Officer, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

Issue: March, 1990

You've probably noticed them - big, light-chested hawks, sitting quietly atop a barren tree or naked stub of a branch along one of Virginia's interstate highways. Possibly you've seen this large, round-winged, fan-tailed bird soaring majestically on a windy day in early summer.

The red-tailed hawk is one of our most common hawks. To science, it is part of the subfamily "buteos." Its most common local name is "chicken hawk," which is somewhat of a misnomer, since its normal prey consists of members of the rodent, rabbit and hare clans. These hawks are built for soaring on wind and thermals. You'll see them coasting in wide, slow-moving circles throughout most of the year, but especially in spring and fall when brisk winds are more prevalent. They are usually looking for prey.

They also hunt from a perch. They'll sit quietly on their lookout perches watching patiently for a mouse or rabbit, merely dropping down on them once they give their location away. Unfortunately, many of them swoop down low along or over the road which carries them into the paths of fast-moving vehicles. Despite their size they are deceptively quick. I watched one come very close to intercepting a mourning dove in flight.

The food of the red-tail consists of nearly 70 percent rodents, rabbits and hares, but they'll also prey on birds, insects, snakes, lizards and occasionally domestic fowl. Their attraction to the chicken yard, which may become somewhat the equivalent of a convenience store if they get too accustomed to the easy pickin's is why its been tagged with the name "chicken hawk." People who feed birds from feeders year 'round find that hawks are often drawn to the activity of feeding song birds for easy meals and are frustratingly difficult to deter. For the most part, however, red-tails feed on meadow voles and cottontail rabbits.

Red-tailed hawks nest in woodlands, building large bulky nests of large sticks, twigs, bark and a variety of sprigs of greenery. Sometimes the old nests of crows, owls, other hawks and even squirrels are rebuilt or improved. The nest is usually built well up in a tree where two to four young are reared. They grow fast on a high protein diet provided by the parent birds.

Hawks tend to increase in numbers during periods of high rodent populations. Meadow mice or voles may produce 17 litters of four to nine young in their two year life span. Their offspring, in turn, have been known to breed in two weeks! Due to this expanded food availability, the red-tail's average brood size and survival rates increase. The birds become stronger and healthier. This increase in hawk population helps to quell the population increase of the rodents which is a definite benefit to us all.

Ordinarily on its winter range, the red-tail will take mainly those rodents that are forced out of their normal shelter into unfamiliar areas or marginal habitat by pressure of their own numbers to find food and shelter. As these individuals diminish due to starvation and predation, or if snow seals off this food supply, red-tails are forced to disperse in order to find other sources of food, even as the mice had to. If there is not enough to sustain the increased hawk populations, they too will diminish to numbers the shelter and food sources can support. On a short term basis, "Nature" is not in balance, but is always seeking a balance.

One of the more spectacular phases in the life of the hawk world is their migration. They are usually concentrated along specific flight paths such as mountain ridges or coastlines where wind and thermals are most active. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a good place to watch the hawk migration from mid-September to early-October. These migrations include a variety of hawks such as red-shouldered, broad-winged, Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks.

Northern breeding red-tails may fly far south to winter, yet those living in areas with less severe winters may remain in the same woods they nested in. Look for red-tails in open woodlands with large trees and in open fields bordered by large trees. The two-foot long birds are a dark brown or reddish-brown above with a buffy chest that appears almost white, and dark belly markings that appear as a band. Its name, of course, comes from its rufous-colored tail.

Another note of interest is that there are variations of colors, or races, of red-tailed hawks. A dark race is called Harlan's red tail while a lighter or prairie race is called the Krider's red-tail. Occasionally one of the very light-colored red-tails is reported in Virginia.

This spring, when you are traveling Virginia's intestates, watch for this stately and interesting bird of prey.