Along the Path: Soaring Free – The Red Tailed Hawk

By Susan Rothrock Deo              (Soaring hawk photo by Ashok Khosla)

“Keee. Keeeee.” The shrill call pierced the air.

Three red tailed hawks soared over the canyon, their pale, brick-red tails glinting like stained glass.

“Keee. Keeeee.” Some describe their call as a scream, but it doesn’t sound that way to me. I smiled. “Wish I was up there with them.”


Who wouldn’t? Very few birds beyond raptors and sea birds are capable of soaring: maintaining flight without flapping their wings. Once airborne, hawks spread their wings and use rising air currents to float in great arcs across the sky. The red tailed hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, is one of my favorites. It’s the quintessential raptor, or bird of prey. Their call is so iconic (a symbol of raptors) that it’s often used to depict any raptor in films, even the bald eagle. Red tailed hawks are found in just about every type of open habitat— forests, deserts, plains—in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The species was first identified in Jamaica (can you find “Jamaica” in its scientific name?). Here in Southern California they are year-round residents, with more migrating in from the north for winter.

They are a medium-sized raptor, about 19 inches tall with a wingspan of about 49 inches, the female bigger than the male. Their coloration, generally mottled brown, can vary, especially in the western U.S., where it can go from blackish, to rufous brown, to nearly white. All are known for their distinctive red tails. Red tailed hawks have acute vision (eight times more powerful than humans), strong legs and feet, sharp curved claws, and a curved beak. They can fly 20-40 miles per hour, with dives exceeding 120 miles per hour.

All these attributes make them excellent hunters. Their primary food is small mammals/rodents like mice and gophers. They also eat snakes, other reptiles, frogs, insects and some birds, though they sail too slowly to catch most birds. They carry lightweight prey to a feeding perch and heavier prey they shred and gulp on the spot.

Couples, who pair up for a year or longer, court in the spring, soaring together with their legs hanging down, crossing and re-crossing each other’s paths. The males dive from heights repeatedly. The birds’ nests are made of dry sticks, lined with bark strips, fresh foliage and dry vegetation. They are up to six and a half feet high and three feet across. WOW! They refurbish the same nest every year. The female incubates two to three white eggs with brown speckles for 28-35 days while the male hunts for both parents.

The hatchlings, blind and covered with white down, grow slowly and require lots of food. At first, their mother tears up their food. After four to five weeks, the young do it themselves. The last 10 days before they fledge (fly away) they are almost as big as their parents and spend most of their time balancing on the edge of the nest flapping their wings. Practice! They fledge at six to seven weeks and are capa- ble of strong flight after two more weeks.

Hawks are made to soar. They soar when hunting, courting, and defending their territory, and sometimes, it seems, just to have fun. I hope you have a chance to watch one soon – and imagine yourself up there.

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