If you happen to spot a large bird of prey keeping watch atop a telephone pole or circling out over a farm field, chances are you’ve just seen red-tailed hawk. Also called chicken hawks, red-tailed hawks are one of the most common hawk species both across the state and all of North America.
With our abundance of open fields, intermittent woods, and plenty of tall trees and utility poles for perches, Delaware County provides a perfect habitat for these impressive birds. Red-tailed hawks can be found in Ohio year-round, though winter is one of the best times to really get a good look at them when they are out trying to compensate for the shorter daylight hours and scarcity of prey.
Along with other species of hawks, kites, eagles, and owls, the red-tailed hawk is part of a group of birds called raptors. Raptors are named for the Latin word meaning “to seize or snatch” due to their powerful talons used in hunting.
In fact, most everything about raptors makes them excellent hunters. With forward-facing eyes capable of precise depth perception and hearing around eight times better than that of you or me, raptors can easily out-hunt even the keenest human marksman. Raptor leg muscles are incredibly strong allowing them to grip and carry off their prey, which can then be eaten.
Their sharp hooked beaks are well designed for tearing off pieces of meat. If this sounds a little grisly to you, just remember that all animals have a place in the food web and provide very important pest control services for us humans.
I’ve had the opportunity to see red-tailed hawks up close several times and boy, are they bigger than they look up in the sky! Red-tailed hawks can be over two feet tall sitting upright but are light for their size, weighing between one and one half to three pounds.
Like many different species of animals, male and female red-tailed hawks are of different sizes — though the females are actually the bigger of the two. As suggested by their name, adult red-tailed hawks are usually best identified by their rusty-red tail feathers. The main body color varies widely over their extensive habitat range; in Ohio, red-tailed hawks are usually dark brown with a white breast.
Even if you have never seen a red-tailed hawk, I can almost guarantee that you’ve heard one before. Their fearsome “keeeeer” call is the preferred sound clip used in movies whenever any kind of raptor bird appears on screen.
The bald eagle’s natural call doesn’t quite match up with the tough image we associate with our national bird, but red-tailed hawks are the perfect stand-in. Though they sound intimidating, red-tailed hawks aren’t much of a threat to humans and do not usually bother pets like some raptors are known to do. As much as 85 per cent of their diet consists of rabbits, birds, reptiles, and insects.
When hunting is tough, red-tailed hawks can be a threat to birds that congregate at feeders as well as chickens. Defense is your best option in this case, as it is illegal to kill red-tailed hawks — they are doing what comes naturally, after all.
If like me, you are a bit challenged in the bird-identification department, I recommend checking out some good picture guidebooks such as the National Audubon Society North American Field Guides.
For those of you that are fans of technology, Cornell University has developed a free phone app called Merlin that helps you identify what bird you’ve seen with either a photo taken on your phone or by identifying several simple characteristics such as the bird’s size, main colors, and the type of activity it was engaged in when you saw it.
Merlin can currently identify 285 of the most common birds in North America and is accessible on mobile devices.
You can always stop by 557-A Sunbury Road in Delaware or call 740-368-1921 with your conservation questions.
Union Co., New Mexico
10 January 2009
Rebecca Longsmith is Resource Conservationist for the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District.