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Red-tailed Hawk

red-tailed hawk(Buteo jamaicensis)

Where are red-tailed hawks found?
Red-tailed hawks live in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

How many kinds of hawks are there in Minnesota?
There are 7 types of hawks that are fairly common in Minnesota:

  • Sharp-shinned Hawk
  • Rough-legged Hawk
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Broad-winged Hawk
  • Northern Goshawk
  • Cooper's Hawk

Swainson's hawks are sometimes found in the very western edge off the state. There have been cases of Ferruginous Hawks being seen in Minnesota but it is uncommon.

What is the largest hawk in Minnesota?
The red-tailed hawks in Minnesota weigh around 2.4 lbs with a wingspan of 49 inches. The rough-legged hawk is similar in size with enough variation that one cannot be declared larger. Ferruginous hawks weigh about 1 lb more and on average have a 6 inch greater wingspan but are relatively uncommon in Minnesota (Sibley, 2000).

What is the smallest hawk in Minnesota?
The sharp-shinned hawk weighing in at 5oz and with a wingspan of 23 inches is our smallest hawk (Sibley, 2000).

Is there much competition among hawk species?
Yes and no. Hawks are territorial so they will defend their hunting area. Division of habitat preference helps keep the hawks away from each other as well. There are two groups of hawks and their physical differences relate to their habitat preference:

  • Buteos, like the red-tailed hawk, are not fast, but rely on their eyesight and their stealth. They grab prey, then drive talons through it to make sure it is dead.
  • Accipiters are built for speed and for flying through the woods quickly. They have shorter wings and can turn sharp corners so they don't run into trees as they chase their prey. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks are accipiters. Their feet aren't as strong as red-tailed hawks because their prey, mainly birds, is easier to crush and requires less strength.

What qualifies a bird as a raptor?
Many birds like crows, robins and woodpeckers eat other animals but it is the special adaptations that raptors have that sets them apart.

All birds of prey have special tools to hunt down and kill their prey; the similarity of the tools is what ties them together.

  • Talons - essentially sharp claw-like toenails evolved for quickly killing prey though piercing and crushing.
  • Beak - a hook shaped beak evolved for tearing apart flesh and muscle.
  • Eyesight - extremely good eyesight for hunting animals from high vantage points such as treetops or while soaring.

Raptors are grouped into five types:

  • Eagles, Hawks, Vultures, Owls and Falcons
  • There are also some raptors that don't technically fall into any of these groups, among them are the kites, the osprey, and the northern harrier

As you can see, the term raptor is a loose one based more on behavior and appearance than actual genetic relationships.

How do red-tailed hawks kill their food?
Birds of prey have three talons in front and one behind. They are needle-sharp. Red-tailed hawks have strong feet in order to catch and kill their prey.

Do red-tailed hawks migrate?
Many red-tailed hawks do migrate south for the winter, but some individuals, especially older birds with established territories, may choose to stay. More birds migrate when the winter is especially snowy as they have greater difficulty locating rodents who hide tunnels under the snow.

Why are birds of prey called raptors and is there any relation to the dinosaurs?
Birds of prey have a tight hold on their prey when they grab it. Raptor is from the Latin rapare meaning to seize or grasp. The velociraptor is thought to have been a fast grasper of prey. The Latin root of the word is the only relationship. To correct some Hollywood misconceptions: The velociraptors in the movie Jurassic Park were made 400 percent larger than those actually found in the fossil record. Real velociraptors were only the size of a large dog like a great dane. Also, both the velociraptors and the tyranosaurus rex lived in the Late Cretaceous period, (approximately 75 million years ago) not the Jurassic Period. They appeared about 100 million years after the middle of the Jurassic. Cretaceous Park must not have seemed like a movie anyone would have gone to.

What do red-tailed hawks eat?
They can carry things that are up to about half their body weight. Our red-tailed hawk weights about 2 lbs. A can of pop weighs about one pound, so this bird weighs about as much as two cans of pop. A young rabbit weighs 2-4 pounds, which means it's too big for this hawk. A big squirrel could weigh 2 pounds. Red-tailed hawks eat lots of mice. Red-tailed hawks eat about three white-footed mice a day. We feed gophers to our hawk. Because of the damage they do to farmer's crops there is bounty paid for gophers in Washington County. We receive the gophers after they have been trapped.

You may have heard of chicken hawks. The term chicken hawk is a common name for both the red-tailed hawk and the Cooper's hawk. They used to be called chicken hawks, because farmers believed they stole chickens, but based on their size all but the smallest chicks are probably too big for red-tailed hawks.

How well can red-tailed hawks see?
The eyesight of the red-tailed hawk is two to three times better than ours. It is believed that a red-tailed hawk can see a mouse a half mile away.

Can you tell a male and female red-tailed hawk apart by sight?
In many species of bird, including ducks and songbirds, the male and the female look different, especially in comparing the color of the feathers. Most birds of prey have the same color plumage in both sexes, but the female birds are larger.

Is the red-tailed hawk at Warner Nature Center a male or female?
Based on his smaller size, the red-tailed hawk at WNC is probably a male. Male raptors are not as strong and not as aggressive as females. Female raptors are aggressive, can take care of themselves, and can defend their eggs, their nest, and their territory. Males are smaller by one-third, and they can be faster. They use their speed to protect their hunting territory, which may be from two to twelve acres. The male needs to provide for the family when the young birds are still in the nest.

Do you need a permit to keep a red-tailed hawk?
WNC doesn't own this bird. It is a wild animal that lives in captivity. Red-tailed hawks are federally protected birds it is illegal to have one without a permit. We have permits that say we know how to care for this bird and are allowed to have it.

How did your bird end up at WNC?
He was hit by a car in Edina and picked up by the police at the side of the road. He was taken to The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota. The Raptor Center is an animal hospital for raptors. As a result of the accident his beak is slightly crooked and he is unable to tear up his own food. Because he can't tear up his food, we cut it up for him. He was originally with another center but came to us after the other location ceased educational programs. We are happy to provide him with a home as the other option is euthanization since he cannot return to the wild. The Raptor Center is the oldest and largest hospital for raptors in the world. Forty percent of the birds brought to the raptor center are healed and able to return to the wild.

How old is the captive red-tailed hawk at Warner Nature Center?
It's hard to age a bird after the first year because they all look the same as adults. Our bird looked different when he was taken to the Raptor Center so it was clear that he was a juvenile. In 2011 he turned 16 years old. He may live to thirty years old in captivity, which is about twice the length he would survive in the wild. A bald eagle may live to thirty years old in the wild, and thus sixty years in captivity.

Are hawks used in falconry?
As the name suggests, falcons are primarily used in falconry. Falconry has been called one of the oldest sports in the world, but it didn't start for sport, it started for hunting. Pictographs in Egypt from four thousand years ago show people handling birds. Some people hunt with a dog and a falcon: the dog flushes the game bird out of cover and the raptor grabs it in the air and brings it back to the handler. Hawks are hard to handle and always still wild; they don't really like people. Still, some people do use hawks for falconry.

How fast can a red-tailed hawk fly?
A red-tailed hawk can go 35 to 40 mph.

Do red-tailed hawks eat their food on the ground or in trees?
Most of the time a hawk will try to eat quickly. If it stays on the ground it is more vulnerable to attack. Hawks have the advantage of having a crop. The crop is a widening of the esophagus where the bird can hold food and take a little at a time to its stomach. That means the bird can quickly take in the food on the ground and then take time to sit in a tree and digest the food slowly. In the wild a red-tailed hawk may eat only every couple of days.

How have people impacted red-tailed hawk populations?
Europeans spreading across Minnesota has been beneficial to red-tailed hawks because they like to hunt over fields where farmers have cleared the trees away. Also, rodents tend to prosper in places where people are. We have turned forest savanna into open fields that make great hunting grounds. One third of the state was originally prairie. Here, red-tailed hawks were more common than in the forests, but keep in mind that prairie grasses were eight to ten feet tall. Cleared fields and neatly mowed highway shoulders have made prey much easier to find.

Do red-tailed hawks prefer food dead or alive?
Red-tailed hawks prefer live food. When a raptor is first brought to The Raptor Center the handlers make an incision in the mouse or gopher so the bird will visually key in on the blood until it learns to eat dead food. Red-tailed hawks cannot smell their food. Vultures, which prefer dead food, do have an excellent sense of smell.

Do red-tailed hawks need to drink water?
Most raptors get enough moisture from their food. Like other birds, they do like water and use it to clean their feathers.

What sort of health problems do raptors face?
Health problems are surprisingly similar for birds and people. Their circulation gets worse as they age, and they can suffer from cataracts and arthritis. When young, inexperienced hawks may fly into things, just like kids learning to ride a bike. If the hawk is going too fast to turn, just as you might on your bike, it will run into something to stop. In captivity birds have foot problems because they are sitting so much. A new threat for raptors is the West Nile Virus carried by mosquitoes. At Warner Nature Center our birds live outdoors so we have put up special insect netting to keep their living area as mosquito free as possible.

Does anything prey upon the red-tailed hawk?
Great Horned Owls are called winged tigers of the night. The rule that a bird will eat something not greater than half its body weight is not true of great horned owls. They can ambush their prey with silent flight and have been known to kill red-tailed hawks. Unfortunately, people also prey upon raptors both on purpose and by accident. Eighty percent of red-tailed hawks won't see their first birthday.

Miscellaneous Facts

  • Red-tailed hawks have large brow ridges over their eyes. The ridge acts like a visor or a baseball cap to keep the sun out of their eyes when they hunt.
  • Red-tailed hawks soar on thermals as they hunt. Soaring doesn't take very much energy and lets the hawk see a good amount of territory.
  • There is no room for eye muscles in their small heads so they must move their heads to look around.
  • The red-tailed hawk has nares, holes in the beak like nostrils that allow the bird to breathe while eating. It eats fast because that is when it is most vulnerable to attack, with its eyes down.
  • The red-tailed hawk has eyes on the front of its face because he is a predator, not prey. Hawks have upper and lower eye lids just like humans. They also have a third eyelid that slides in from the side and is clear. This is called the nictitating membrane and it protects the bird from injury while going down into long grasses to grab prey. Sharks and camels also have nictitating membranes. Why would camels need it? To keep sand out of their eyes!

The information above is common scientific knowledge. For a list of specific resources, visit the Animal FAQ Resources page.

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