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What Is a Red-Tailed Hawk?

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  • Written By: Alyssa Simon
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2014
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A red-tailed hawk is a carnivorous bird that belongs to a group called raptors, meaning birds of prey. Its scientific name is Buteo jamaicensis. Buteo is from the Latin word for broad, or rounded, and refers to the red-tailed hawk's wings. Jamaicensis refers to Jamaica, since the bird was first studied by scientists in the West Indies, but its range also extends throughout North America to Alaska and as far south as Panama.

These adaptable birds can be found in deserts or forests. The female is usually larger than the male, and both adults have dark brown heads and backs with a lighter underbelly and bright red tail feathers. A young red-tailed hawk can be identified by its brown tail, which turns to red in its second year. The average red-tailed hawk in the wild can live to be 21-years-old.

The birds have strong, hooked beaks and long, sharp talons or claws on their feet that they use to capture their prey and tear it apart if it is too big to be swallowed whole. A red-tailed hawk's eyesight is thought to be eight times greater than a person's, which enables it to spot from great heights the small rodents that make up the majority of its diet. In some parts of the US, they are called chicken hawks, because they have been known to prey on domestic chickens. They can also hunt rabbits, snakes and lizards.

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Mating season for the red-tailed hawk is March through May, and great aerial mating displays can be seen then when both the male and female birds fly up high and then swoop down around each other repeatedly. Red-tailed hawks are thought to mate for life, and when they are ready to breed, both genders help to make large and shallow nests from small twigs. The nests are also thought to be used repeatedly and are added to year by year to repair weather or wind damage.

Female red-tailed hawks will generally lay two eggs a season. The incubation period is about a month, and during this time, the male red-tailed hawk hunts for food to bring back to the nest while the female protects the eggs until they hatch. Baby red-tailed hawks stay in the nest for a little over six weeks and by the fifth week will flap their wings in preparation to fly and leave the nest for the first time.

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Laotionne
Post 3

I'm not a country girl, so I don't know a lot about wild animals unless they are the kind that have figured out how to survive in the city. So you can image how shocked I was when I saw a larger bird fly down and take a pidgin out of the air and onto the street.

I was driving down the street on my way to the bank, and suddenly I was watching a live episode of National Geographic or Wild Kingdom. I had no idea that birds of prey fed on other birds. I'm not a big fan of pidgins. We have way too many of them, but the scene made me feel a little sad for the poor bird.

mobilian33
Post 2

I know plenty of people who are afraid of birds of prey like eagles and hawks, but for the most part, the animals do much more good than they do harm. They are good at controlling rat and mice populations and reptile populaations, including snakes and lizards.

I had a neighbor who fired off his shotgun to keep the birds from nesting in the trees near his house. He did this religiously, then he complained about all the rats and mice in his garage and under his house. Some people just don't understand the circle of life.

Sporkasia
Post 1

My grandparents had free-range chickens on their property when I was a little girl. They lived on a farm and there were barns and sheds, and even an open coop for the chickens. My grandparents simply let the chickens roam all over the place instead of locking them up. Mostly, the chickens stayed out of the main yard and down by the barns.

My grandparents also had dogs and cats and these pets kept away the foxes and other wild animals that might have eaten the chickens given the chance. However, there were a couple of persistent red-tailed hawks that occasionally flew over and swept down for a free meal. The dogs would bark and chase after the birds, but the birds could swoop down so quickly and get away before the dogs had a chance to touch them.

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