The Red-tailed Hawk

December 8, 2011

The Red-tailed Hawk is a year-round resident of Mount Auburn and is probably the most commonly seen bird of prey across North America. This is the hawk that you see often along the highways. The Red-tail is one in the family of hawks called buteos, which are distinguished by their long and broad wings and fanned tails when in flight. Red-tailed Hawks can have variable plumage, though all adults have reddish tails; the young bird’s tails are brown and banded. Many veteran hawk watchers at Mount Auburn can tell each individual apart and have even given them names. The Mount Auburn Red-tails are not shy and can be easily approached; they often will sit for a long period of time watching squirrels and when the right moment comes – dinner is had. The Red-tail is often mobbed by crows even though they are really not interested in them as prey items, but instead they are looking for small mammals and squirrels.

Red-tailed Hawks begin thinking of nesting in the winter months and have been seen as early as mid- January in the Cemetery working on nest building. Nesting Red-tails prefer a tall tree with good aerial access to the site though the Red-tail has adapted to urban life and nesting can be anywhere such as the famous nest on a building opposite the Fresh Pond Mall in Cambridge in recent years. At this time of the year a visitor at Mount Auburn may witness some courtship behavior such as high circling. The male circles above the female often with its legs dangling and they may touch wings, the female sometimes will turn over and present her talons upward. Other courtship flights include tilting where the bird tilts side to side while circling and then you might see a sky plunge where the bird rises in altitude then dives steeply at a high speed and at the last moment shoots back up- this should impress his mate!

Though nest construction can begin in winter the actual nesting will occur later, some folks believe that by placing greenery like conifer twigs alerts other hawks that this is their “hood” and they should look elsewhere to set up territory. Birding behavior is a year-round spectacle- so keep your eyes skyward this February and enjoy our Red-tails!!

Photo by John “Garp” Harrison.

About the Author: Bob Stymeist

Bob Stymeist is Bird Observer's Bird Sightings Compiler and a regular bird walk leader for the Friends of Mount Auburn. View all posts by Bob Stymeist →

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