Red-tailed hawk: Our common Kansas companion

The red-tailed hawk, perched along a highway or gracefully soaring overhead, can be found as far north as central Alaska and as far south as Panama.

But it’s right at home in the Sunflower State.

“They’re probably the most common bird we see here in Kansas,” said Max Terman, biology professor at Tabor College.

“Kansas is one of the most densely populated states by red-tailed hawks.”

When surveys are undertaken in the state, researchers find five or so, on an average, in their daily tallies without any problem, Terman said.

“Hawks by and large stay in the area,” he said. “They’re residents, and they tough out the winter. They tend to be more numerous as you go down south in southern Kansas and Oklahoma.

“As you go down to those areas, I think you see more hawks along the roads so there may be some local migration down south.”

The Kansas native is about 19 inches to 25 inches in length and has a wingspan of 46 inches to 58 inches.

Known to ornithologists as a Buteo, its coloring is dark brown on its back and on the top of its wings. The underside of the bird is usually light with a dark belly band, and it has a cinnamon wash on its neck and chest.

It also has dark “patagial” marks on the underside of the wings that distinguish it from all other North American hawks.

But its most distinctive feature, the rusty-hued tail, gives the hawk its name. The red tail is easy to see when the bird takes flight and fans out it’s tail.

Juveniles are not hard to spot because their tail is brown with dark bars. The characteristic red tail molts in during its second year.

“Their feathers are soft, pretty much like the owl,” Terman said.

The female, weighing in at 3 to 4 pounds, is nearly one-third larger than the male, which can weigh only 2 1/2 pounds.

It’s not unusual for red-tailed hawks to live anywhere from 10 to 21 years, and they have been known to live even longer in captivity.

In some parts of Kansas the birds are banded but not in Marion County, Terman said.

“We may see a bird here that has been banded somewhere else.”

Mating and nest building begin in early spring, usually in March, and continue through May.

“As far as we know, they will pair-bond with the same mate from year to year unless they lose that mate, and then they’ll get another one,” Terman said.

During mating season, males and females will put on distinctive aerial displays. Circling and soaring to great heights, they will fold their wings, plummet to tree-top level and then repeat this show as much as five or six times.

The nest, built by both the male and female, is usually located high in the forks of an older, taller tree where they have a wide view of their territory. A typical nest is a large, flat, shallow structure made of sticks and twigs each measuring about 1/2 inch in diameter.

Nests, often reused each year, will be spruced up with layers of new nesting material to repair homes damaged by strong winds during the winter months.

A clutch of two dull, white eggs takes 28 to 32 days to incubate and is maintained almost entirely by the female. It’s the male’s job to hunt for both of them and bring food to the nest.

The young will fledge at about 45 days and usually don’t begin to breed until their third year.

Because of their inexperience as hunters, juveniles may be seen eating road-killed animals.

They may even kill chickens. Although this is a rare occurrence, it has earned them the name “chicken hawk.”

“I think the general public has a misunderstanding that there’s a chicken hawk out there that’s picking off all the livestock,” Terman said. “But most of the studies I’ve seen-that doesn’t happen all that much.”

Nature has equipped these carnivores with strong hooked beaks and long, curved talons. The sharp talons help them hunt prey.

Prey are killed with the talons and if too large to swallow whole, the meal is torn to bite-size pieces with the hawk’s beak.

Hawks have been clocked at over 120 mph when diving for food.

Meal choice covers a wide range of animals, Terman said.

Mice make up 80 to 90 percent of their diets.

“That would be like (field mice), moles and cotton rats, but they also eat small rabbits, and depending on the size of the hawk, large rabbits and even squirrels,” Terman said.

Snakes, lizards and smaller cats can also be found on their menu.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of red-tailed hawks eating cats, but smaller light-colored cats may disappear from either hawks or owls,” Terman said.

“I don’t think it’s a real problem though. In fact in some cases, it might even be good to keep down the feral-cat population.”

A red-tailed hawk, sitting on a telephone pole or fence post along a highway, makes the most of man-made structures for scouting and hunting prey.

It will sometimes sit for hours and then suddenly glide off to catch a meal.

“One good guess is that there are shorter-grass areas along the highway that are maintained, making foraging easier for the raptors,” said Bill Jensen, graduate student in biology at Kansas State University.

But they also combine the sit-and-wait method with soaring and searching, Terman said.

“They will perch and watch for their prey, but they will also fly around and hunt,” he said.

Mother Nature has provided the hawk with eyesight eight times more powerful than a human.

“As I understand it, their eyesight is very flexible,” Terman said.

“They also have to be able to see up close to eat their prey.”

One particularly intense debate concerning red-tailed hawks is the effect their predation has on the bobwhite quail population, Jensen said.

“There’s been some concerns about the high density of raptors. Some people have noticed more of that lately, and the population of the bobwhites has been declining,” he said.

” So they put two and two together and say there’s a cause and effect there, but we really don’t know that that pertains.”

The issue has intrigued Jensen.

“It’s a commonly voiced complaint by a minority of hunters out there that the population is down, and it’s something I’ve been investigating,” he said.

Terman believes the root of the quail vs. raptor issue is the ultimate value of predators in the balance of nature.

“Ecologists generally agree that predators are good for prey population because they take off the weak, sick and genetically inferior, and generally make for a more healthy population,” he said.

“Predator control has basically not been good for prey population. So right now I think most ecologists think that the loss of habitat is the main reason why quail are going down.”

A hawk’s territory is more fiercely guarded in the mating season than other times of the year, but generally their space is about one hawk per one to two miles.

Hawks aren’t alone in guarding their territory and have their share of enemies.

Smaller birds can be seen attacking hawks in the air.

“That’s called ‘bobbing,’ and they’re trying to keep the predator away from their territory,” Terman said.

Owls and humans are also contenders in the hawk’s fight for survival.

“Hawks and owls are arch enemies because they both feed on the same food source,” Terman said.

Terman has spent extensive time observing the behavior of owls.

“The owl I was working with would stop in his tracks and focus in on a red-tailed hawk even though the hawk was flying real high in the sky.”

People have had an affect on the hawk population throughout history.

“I’ve gotten ahold of hawks that have gotten poisoned through eating rodents which have been poisoned,” Terman said.

“You have this ‘bio-amplification’ phenomenon that goes on there. They just get a real strong dose of it, and it does affect their health and also their reproduction.

“Probably the highest mortality comes from people shooting them, which is illegal, and accidents with cars. They can also get electrocuted on high-wire lines.”

The hawk is a federally protected migratory bird, said Marvin Peterson, conservation officer with Kansas Wildlife and Parks.

“The court sets those fines, and if you’re getting into raptors, which would include bald eagles, then there could possibly be jail time,” Peterson said.

The hawk population tends to vary with the abundance of the rodent population, Terman said.

“And in a warm year like this year, when rodent populations are up, I wouldn’t doubt that the hawk population would be up also.

It’s important for the farmer to realize the red-tailed hawk is doing a good thing by keeping the rodent population under control, Terman said.

“A hawk will eat about 100 to 200 rodents in a year,” he said.

“Each rodent will damage about a bushel of grain. If you assume each bushel of grain is worth $1 to $2, then it will cost the farmer about $100 to $200 a year if he shoots one hawk.”

“Keep in mind that rodents also cause disease like hantavirus, which is a virus spread by the deer mouse. And the rodents also ruin farm buildings.

“So anything that preys on rodents is very valuable.”

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