The Red-tailed Hawk – a killing machine
Out for a morning of wildlife viewing, my neighbor Wylie Powell and I watched several burrowing owls, waterfowl families, migrating shorebirds and birds of prey. We were well rewarded.
As we drove the auto-route around Camas National Wildlife Refuge, a movement caught both our eyes.
“Wow, it almost hit us!” Wylie said as an immature Red-tailed hawk dove past our windshield, nailing a young mallard as a family scurried toward the water. “Did he get one?”
“Yup.” I answered as I tried to get the camera out the window. “It has talons wrapped around the duck’s throat.”
“I guess that is real life.”
“Bad for the duck and good for the hawk.”
We watched as the hawk tried twice to fly off with the struggling duck, but the weight was too great for the hawk to carry it very far. Eventually the meal was dragged behind some bulrushes and it was time to leave.
Red-tailed hawks are the most common species of raptors in the United States and there are fourteen recognized sub-species. They are widespread across the United States and have adapted to all kinds of habitat.
Many of these local raptors nest in the Targhee National Forest as well as in the Big Desert and the farmlands of southeastern Idaho.
Its preferred habitats are mixed fields and forests where there are perch sites for them to hunt from. Often they can be seen perched on electric poles along the roads waiting for small mammals, birds or snakes to expose themselves. This medium sized raptor is a slow flier often seen soaring but during a dive they can reach speeds up to 120 miles per hour.
Snow cover makes their hunting difficult, so they will migrate late in the fall away from areas where snow covers their prey. They return to their nesting sites early in the spring when the snow starts to recede. Many times this means the most productive hunting areas are along roads. Red-tailed hawks are often hit by cars as they swoop across roads as their eyes are locked onto their prey.
These beautiful hawks are monogamous with a pair mating together and nesting in the same area for years. Their breeding display includes wide swooping loops with the pair locking talons and spiraling to the ground. At times it looks as if the male is attacking the female.
The young hawk we watched was probably from a pair that has nested in the large cottonwoods north of the headquarters of Camas NWR. When the pair returned to their nesting area in February, they found 50 bald eagles roosting near the nest site and spent most evenings dive bombing their larger cousins forcing the eagles to roost in the northeast end of the tree line.
Nests are usually built in the tallest tree of the grove or in a lone tree in the desert. They will defend that site aggressively even attacking wandering humans and large animals like elk or cattle.
Great horned owls are unable to build their own nests and often use red-tailed hawk nests of previous seasons for their nests. This forces the hawks to find another site.
With the owls and hawks competing for the same nesting and hunting areas, these two species of birds will often come into conflict at times. These conflicts can be fierce aerial battles at dusk and dawn high in the air.
Red-tailed hawks were known as “chickenhawks” during settlement times when settlers allowed their chickens to range free. Young hawks just learning to hunt would often find these farm birds easy targets. As a kid I remember my grandfather and uncle “picking” hawks off the derrick with high powered rifles.
No longer a menace to most chickens, these killing machines reap havoc on the rodent population and families of flightless ducklings.
Young ducks not able to fly, better stay on the water or learn to fly quickly before they become an uncooked duck dinner.