Monday, December 22, 2008

Keep an eye open for the Red-tailed hawk

By Lorraine McFarland
Past President
Ozark Rivers Audubon

Each December when my husband and I head out to visit the relatives in Oklahoma City for the holidays, we enjoy what we have dubbed the “holiday hawk count”. The open fields along I-44, especially in Oklahoma, are always graced by many Red-tailed hawks, Buteo jamaicensis, regally perched in bare trees on the roadside, keeping an eye out for any little creature in the field. My husband keeps watch on the driver’s side (very carefully, since he is the driver) while I watch on the passenger’s side. But the hawks can probably see us better than we can see them. Their eyes are almost the size of ours and their vision is 8 times more powerful than humans! Their ability to judge distance is also very good. Most raptors have bony projections above the eyes that shade them from the glare of the sun and protect the eyes in the struggle of the kill or while flying through trees and brush in pursuit. This bone structure is what gives them their ferocious look.
Buteos are bulky hawks with broad wings. The tail is spread fan-like when the bird soars. They are often seen perched on dead trees, power poles or fence posts. The Red-tailed hawk, our most common and widespread buteo, is 18-25” in length with a wingspread of 48-58”. Field marks for identification include a dark band of streaks across the pale belly and the red tail. The red-tail’s familiar cry of “kee-eeeer” is a favorite of Hollywood, often used inappropriately to represent any bird of prey.
Red-tail parents are monogamous and share nest-building duties, using sticks and twigs to fashion a large platform with a wide view, usually in the crotch of a tall tree. In Missouri they prefer mixed forest with open fields interspersed. The interior of the nest is lined with evergreens and fresh deciduous leaves. If you find a nest and monitor it you will see that the birds are diligent about decorating. The greenery will be replaced over the nesting season as it browns. The female will usually lay 2-3 eggs in mid-March and will do most of the incubating for 30-35 days. The babies are semialtricial (immobile, downy, eyes open, fed by parents) at hatch and remain in the nest for about 45 days.
Buteos, including red-tails, have many adaptations to help them stay well fed, not the least of which are their powerful, sharp talons; actually more formidable than their beaks. The feet are used for defense and to kill prey, the beak is used for tearing flesh. Although their favorite food is small mammals, they also eat other birds, reptiles and insects. They use a “swoop” foraging behavior, gliding smoothly and quietly from their perch with wings spread and snatching prey with their powerful talons.
So the next time you are traveling west on I-44 keep your eyes peeled because the Red-tailed hawks will be in the trees and on the fence posts with their eyes peeled too, preparing to swoop!

Lorraine McFarland is past president of Ozark Rivers Chapter of the National Audubon Society.

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