Red-tailed hawks may mean an early winter, but we’re still glad they’re back

Will we have an early and hard winter?  One indicator we will: the first red-tailed hawk came back to Meadowcreek this week.  Red-tailed hawks stay at Meadowcreek until summer gets too hot, then they head North for awhile.  When they feel winter coming, they head back South to us.

redtail_logoHaving one come back in August is early. Maybe it knows something about the winter that we don’t.  Or maybe it was just homesick.  Mature redtails don’t go far from their breeding grounds and don’t stay away long.   The younger ones migrate earlier and go farther.  You can tell them apart because the adults have reddish tails often with a band on the tip; juveniles have brownish tails usually with several dark bands.  So red-tailed hawks don’t necessarily have red tails.

I bet you’ve heard the call of the redtail.  Movie and TV directors seem to think the redtail’s raspy scream sounds exactly like a raptor should sound.  Whenever a hawk or eagle appears onscreen, no matter what species, the shrill cry on the soundtrack is almost always a red-tailed hawk.  When you hear the cry, it will get your attention.

So most everyone knows something about the redtail whether they know it or not.

And you’re pretty safe in calling almost any hawk you see a redtail.  There are several other species and we love to spot them, but the redtails predominate.   Some parts of Arkansas are even better places to find them than Meadowcreek.   The flat farmland of the Delta is perfect for them.  They love the open fields with great telephone poles to perch in.  Sometimes in the winter in the Delta, you can see a redtail on every other telephone pole.

Redtails love elevated perch sites.  One study in Arkansas indicated they prefer to hunt in areas with perches even if the area has a lower prey density than more open areas.  They sometimes spot prey from the air, but more often from their perches.  From their lofty thrones they watch until they spot a careless mouse or bird.

Redtails watch and patrol the fields and roads of Meadowcreek.  We regularly see redtails on our road feasting on prey they have caught trying to cross.  We stop and watch them from a distance until they notice us and fly away with the rest of their catch.

Red-tailed hawks have been seen hunting as a pair, guarding opposite sides of the same tree to catch squirrels.

Many country people used to blame redtails when they lost poultry and called them “chicken hawks.”    As a result, redtails were commonly shot.  The redtail’s propensity to perch in the open made it particularly vulnerable to persecution.  Wildlife biologists now say redtails don’t go after chickens, but they may just like redtails more than chickens.  As we do at Meadowcreek.  We’re willing to lose a chicken every now and then to a hawk.

If you don’t want to lose too many chickens to a hawk, then you might want to be able to distinguish a hawk when it is flying over.  Buzzards or turkey vultures can be easily mistaken for hawks when they are up in the sky, but buzzards only eat dead meat, so they won’t bother your live chickens.  Here are some tricks to use to tell the difference:

  • the tips of buzzard wings look a little more like fingers, the tips of hawk wings are smoother
  • redtails usually have light, oatmeal colored underside while buzzards have dark undersides
  • a buzzard will soar around in circles while a hawk usually soars for a much shorter time before flapping its wings and doesn’t usually make circles
  • vultures hold their wings in more of a V and wobble a bit while flying; hawks’ wings are more straight across and they don’t wobble.

Hawks have a particular flying style when they are just flying for fun and not hunting.  They kite.  This is a combination of soaring and gliding.  You may be familiar with the relatives of redtails called kites.  They are also members of the hawk family.

Redtails are one wild species you don’t have to come to the country to see.

The best known redtail is called Pale Male and lives atop an apartment building near Central Park in New York City.   PBS devoted one of their Nature programs to him in 2008.  He’s still alive, has had two mates and produced many offspring.  You can follow his adventures as late as August 2015 at http://www.palemale.com/.

The oldest known red-tailed hawk was 28 years 10 months old.  Since they usually come back to the same area to breed and spend the winter, we are hoping to get to know the Meadowcreek redtails, but they are not really friendly.

If you are really interested in hawks, come to Meadowcreek and help us do a survey of our population this fall and winter.  Nothing nicer than watching hawks kite on a clear fall day.

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