Perhaps the world’s most famous red-tailed hawk is Pale Male, which has nested on the exterior of 927 Fifth Avenue in New York City since 1991. Other members of this species, Buteo jamaicensis, are common throughout North America, especially in rural settings. Keep an eye on telephone poles or fence posts along highways, where the 2-foot-tall birds often perch while scanning for prey. The red-tail’s broad, rounded wings and short tail are dark red-brown from above and pale from below, making this hawk easy to identify in the air. While its flight may seem labored, with heavy strokes of the wings, its ability to soar can be awe-inspiring.
Thanks to the red-tail’s popularity with Hollywood sound engineers who use its shrill cry to stand in for myriad raptors, including bald eagles, moviegoers throughout the world know its voice. For a glimpse of the species’ aerial courtship display, look skyward from late winter through early spring. The pair soars in wide circles high above the earth, interrupted by the male’s steep dives toward ground and equally sharp climbs, inscribing a V with his flight path. Pairs often mate for life and together build a nest, incubate the young, and then teach their offspring to hunt.
Beyond its sheer beauty, the red-tail’s voracious diet of small rodents, rabbits, and even insects makes it popular with market gardeners and farmers. It’s less common in smaller gardens, where the hawk’s 4-foot wingspan hinders its ability to maneuver. While its keen eyesight enables it to hunt on the wing at altitudes of up to 200 feet, the red-tail is even more likely to scan for snacks from dead tree limbs and other perches that afford a broad view.
Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2012