Hawks are back in the Delta

Hawks have been slow to return to the Delta this year.  Only in the last week have they begun taking up their posts. Usually that means a mild winter.  Hawks do what all sentient beings do and leave Arkansas in the summer. If they cared enough about humans, they’d wonder why some humans stay and hibernate in their air conditioning. But they’re also smart enough to leave the North in the winter.

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The South is where hawks breed and rear their young.   Hawk breeding season lasts from March through May. Mating begins in early March with both males and females performing aerial displays.

One of the delights of Spring is watching mating hawks circling and soaring to great heights, then folding their wings and plummetint to treetop level.  I’ve seen them do it five or six times in a row.  This isn’t a mating dance, because hawks are monogamous and mate for life.  The dancing is just a prelude to dest building. Their nests are in the forks of trees 35 to 75 feet off the ground.  The nests are large, flat and shallow. The preferred building material is 1/2 inch diameter sticks and twigs. Males and females work on the nests and use them from year to year while performing required repairs.

Mature red tail hawks return to their breeding grounds every year.  Young hawks will migrate earlier and go farther than their parents as they for their own territories.  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.

The flat farmland of the Delta is perfect for hawks  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 near the Delta outpost.  We regularly see redtails diving in the fields and coming up with dinner. 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. So does any country person nowadays.  We’re willing to lose a chicken every now and then because we love to have hawks around.

Those who really like watching hawks will learn to distinguish hawks from buzzards when they fly over. Buzzards or turkey vultures can be easily mistaken for hawks when they are up in the sky.  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.   He first appeared there in 1991. Since then, he’s built a nest every year on the same building. He’s has outlived several mates and produced offspring which have also established nests near Central Park. You can follow his adventures as late as October 2018 at http://www.palemale.com/.

The oldest known red-tailed hawk was almost 30 years old.  Since they usually come back to the same area to breed you can get to know your local redtails.

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