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It’s in your nature: The red-tailed hawk

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    An adult red-tailed hawk displays some of its burnt orange tail feathers while perched in a now bare oak tree. BARRY REED/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS

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    A “red-tail” fluffed from the wintry chill displays the light underside and faint belly band.

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    A pair of December “red-tails” found a bare walnut tree to soak up the sun’s warmth.

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    Somewhat surprisingly, voles are the chief prey for a rather large raptor, the red-tailed hawk.

Published February 16. 2019 06:21AM

Other than the bald eagle, the red-tailed hawk is our largest resident diurnal bird of prey. Probably not as feared as the great horned owl, it still is an effective predator. The “red tail” doesn’t regularly feed on the larger prey like the “horned owl.” Actually the meadow mouse (meadow vole) makes up most of its diet.

The “horned owl,” active at night, is more dependent on the larger nocturnal mammals like rabbits and skunks. The “red-tail” doesn’t encounter those larger mammals much during the day so they catch what is most available to them. Rabbits typically hide the day away hidden in a fence row or green briar thicket, while the meadow vole feeds regularly day and night.

Many of us born in the ’50s and ’60s knew the “red-tail” as the chicken hawk. These hawks were rather common perched around the old farmsteads, where they were perceived as predators of the barnyard fowl there. Yes, in lean times they may have “taken” a chicken or two, but they were not the chief prey.

The farms generally harbored various mice species, Norway rats and chipmunks. These were its favored food sources. Barn owls, once rather common around these farms, fed on these same animals, but these owls worked the “night shift,” keeping the rodents in check. The declining smaller family farms are one factor drastically reducing the barn owl numbers. Those disappearing farms have changed the habits of the red-tailed hawks.

Today it is more common to see the red-tailed hawks perched on light standards, billboards or treetops along highways. The mowed highway edges and grassy medians allow them to more easily locate the favored voles in the shorter grasses. On a recent 20-minute drive into the Lehigh Valley, I counted seven different “red-tails” all within 30 yards of busy thoroughfares.

The adult red-tailed hawk can be identified by its reddish tail. Actually it is more of a burnt orange color.

Since many immature “red-tails” are seen, use their rather white chest and belly as good field marks. Also, in many there is a darker line of feathers near its chest referred to as a belly band. So as a general rule of thumb, a rather large hawk, very light belly, a noticeable belly band, and in adults, the characteristic tail will identify this hawk for you.

Hawks feed by either soaring above a grassy area to drop on their prey or sit on a perch in the open where they can quietly slip from that perch to achieve the same results. On windy days, “red-tails” can be seen kiting (hovering) almost motionless and then drop straight down as if they were on a firehouse pole.

Birding buddy Dave and I, when counting winter raptors, also have learned to look for them on winter days perched on the “summer” sides of ridges and hillsides where they seek the sun’s warming southern exposure. Keep your nature eyes open for these raptors the next few weeks as they become more vocal and are often in pairs as they prepare for a new nesting time.

Test Your Outdoor Knowledge: Which of these is not a rodent? A. beaver, B. meadow vole, C. porcupine, D. muskrat, E. short-tailed shrew.

Last Week’s Trivia Answer: Catkins are the delicate, drying seed pods clinging to birch trees in winter.

Contact Barry Reed at

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