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Hilton Jr., B. 1994. Red-tailed hawks. South Carolina Wildlife 41(5):48-49.

(Note: The draft below was submitted to South Carolina Wildlife magazine; the article that actually appeared in print may have been edited.)

Imagine stretching out your arms to catch the wind, rising skyward on columns of warm air, and effortlessly soaring for dozens of miles before gently settling down to perch in the tallest tree to watch rabbits in a field nearly a thousand yards away. If you were a Red-tailed Hawk, you could do all this, and you could do it very well.

Hawks have always fascinated people, perhaps because they are big and majestic, or because they are predators that kill with speed and efficiency. To the appreciative eye, hawks are also quite beautiful, but they have been persecuted because of our own human failure to understand how hawks fit into the natural world.

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is one of the commonest and most easily observed raptors, or birds of prey, in South Carolina--especially in fall and winter. This bird takes its name from the bright rust-colored tail feathers of the adult; immature eastern red-tailed hawks and adults from the western U.S. usually have brown tail feathers with dark banding. Red-tailed Hawks can be found in nearly all South Carolina habitats except the deepest woods; all they need is some open area in which to hunt their prey of rats, rabbits, snakes or small birds. Each winter there are even red-tails that hang out in parks or on college campuses of our largest cities, preying upon abundant pigeons and squirrels.

Red-tailed Hawks may also take an occasional barnyard chicken or housecat, but not nearly as often as people used to believe. In the old days, farmers shot every hawk they could to "protect" their hens and biddies, but then they ended up losing their chickens anyway to weasels and rats that got into the henhouse and ate eggs or killed the adult birds. Obviously, the local Red-tailed Hawk would have helped control the rats and weasels if the farmer had just given it a chance.

Hawks are beautifully adapted for their way of life. A male red-tail may weigh two-and-a-half pounds-females are larger and may weigh up to a pound more-but much of that weight is feathers. The hawk's "primary" feathers are long and flat and--attached to the wing bones--cut through the air during flight. Smaller, shorter "contour" feathers smooth out the bird's body shape, streamlining it so it slides more easily through the air. The "down" feathers are fluffy and provide insulation when the hawk soars or perches in cold weather.

Spanning more than four feet from tip to tip, the red-tail's wings are marvelous in design. Long and broad and slightly cupped, they are extremely efficient at catching the wind and lifting the hawk with minimal effort. The wing bones themselves are hollow, which reduces the weight of the bird and also makes it easier to hold the wings horizontally for long periods of time.

The Red-tailed Hawks' eyes are quite large and provide keen vision over great distances. While birds like sparrows need only to see seeds and insects just in front of them, the red-tailed hawk must spot living prey on the ground while soaring high overhead. When the hawk spots a rat in a field below, it tucks in its wings and dives quickly--sometimes at speeds of 100 mph or faster--swooping in at the last second while extending its feet and claws to grasp the prey. In most cases, a rat dies instantly when the hawk's talons penetrate its body, after which the bird flaps off to a nearby perch to consume its prey.

In early spring, the Red-tailed Hawk may instead take a newly-captured rat to its offspring-two to five white, fuzzy hawk babies awaiting breakfast, lunch, and supper deliveries from their parents. The hawk's nest is a platform of sticks, often high in a pine or oak tree in a dense stand of woods. A mated pair of red-tails may use the same nest from year to year, adding new lining of moss and cedar twigs each spring to cushion the eggs during incubation.

In autumn, Red-tailed Hawks provide one of the most spectacular sights in nature. Northern birds, which move south to warmer climates where food is more plentiful in winter, zoom past hawk-watching spots in great numbers. In mid-October when weather conditions are just right--a partly cloudy morning with northwesterly winds that follow several days of rain or heavy overcast--Red-tailed Hawks begin migrating in earnest. At places like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania or Hawk Ridge in Duluth, it's possible to see nearly 10,000 red-tails in one 12-hour period. Closer to home at Caesar's Head State Park above Greenville, SC, "hawk-gawkers" have reported two thousand red-tails on good autumn days.

In the early half of this century, it was common for "gunners" to asemble at Hawk Mountain and use migrating hawks for target practice. Tens of thousands of these majestic birds were killed each fall for no good reason. Hunters also shot, trapped, and poisoned countless raptors, mistakenly believing they were after gamebirds such as dove and quail. Finally, after years of pressure from conservation-minded citizens, laws were passed to prevent such slaughter so that today all birds of prey are protected by state and federal laws.

Thus protected, many of our raptors are making a comeback. Peregrine Falcons and Southern Bald Eagles have returned from the brink of extinction, and Red-tailed Hawks, in particular, seem to have adapted to humans-nesting in urban or suburban areas that adjoin open spaces where they can hunt. In parts of South Carolina where large tracts of land are kept open for row crops and pasture, Red-tails seem to be especially plentiful. How lucky is the farmer who has one of these "flying mousetraps" that works for free!

And, almost anywhere in the state, how lucky we all are at this time of year for the chance to look skyward and watch a Red-tailed Hawk soar effortlessly on the autumn breeze.


Common Name: Red-tailed Hawk

Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis

Wingspan: 46-58"

Weight: Males up to 2-1/2 pounds; females up to 3-1/2 pounds

Range: Across North America (except tundra and unbroken forests), south to Panama; seen most often in South Carolina soaring over open fields or perched along highways

Primary Habitat: Hunts in fields and open woodlands; nests in deep woods adjoining open areas

Food: Will eat almost anything small enough to catch, especially rats and mice, rabbits, squirrels, small birds, snakes, and frogs

Voice: Hoarse, rasping, medium-pitched scream

Longevity: Probably up to 20 years in the wild

Interesting Behavior: Can hover for extended periods, usually by flapping while tilted back at a 45-degree angle; northern red-tails migrate southward from September through November, often passing by locations such as Caesar's Head State Park in large numbers in mid-October

Bill Hilton Jr. is a science education consultant, writer, naturalist, and Macintosh computer enthusiast who lives in York, South Carolina.

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