By Esther Lutz, East Central Illinois Master Naturalist for University of Illinois Extension in Coles County.
Driving a car on a long ride almost anywhere in Illinois can be a true nature experience if our eyes are sharp. Perched at the edges of wide open fields on fence posts or high on exposed tree limbs or telephone poles, we just might catch a glimpse of a large majestic bird of prey, sitting silently with eyes fixed on the ground below. It's not unusual to come upon first one and then another of these individuals as the ride goes on, each presiding over its own territory, the sightings evenly spread out over the course of the journey.
Buteo jamaicensis -- Red-tailed hawk
The red-tailed hawk is probably the most commonly seen hawk in all of North America. A raptor, or bird of prey, it is large with very broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail. This hawk takes its name from the distinguishing rust-colored tail feathers of the mature adults, cinnamon-red above and pale below. Immature birds must wait for this special coloring until breeding age and usually have brown tail feathers with dark banding. The topside of the wings sport dark brown feathers with some white highlights, and the white belly has a dark brown band of streaks across it. These birds can come in a variety of color phases or "morphs", and such variations can make identification somewhat confusing. But if the trademark rusty red tail is present in an individual, then identification is much easier. Females at three to four pounds are usually about a pound larger than the males, and most of the weight is due to the magnificent feathers. The primary feathers are long and flat and help the hawk to "cut" through the air during flight. The shorter contour feathers serve to streamline the bird's shape and help it to slide more easily through the air. Fluffy down feathers provide protection and insulation from cold weather as the bird soars and perches during the colder seasons. This species remains a part of the Illinois landscape all year-round.
Red-tails are extremely well-adapted for the lives they lead in the open countryside. Their well-designed wings span more than four feet from tip to tip, and are quite efficient at catching the wind and lifting the hawk high on the upper air currents with little effort. The wings are long and broad and slightly cupped, and the hollow wing bones reduce the bird's weight and make it easier to hold the wings horizontal for long periods as the birds actively hunt for prey in the fields below. Target species include rats, mice, voles, chipmunks, rabbits, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. Snakes are a common meal for the red-tailed hawks in Illinois. In the winter they have even been known to hang out in parks or on college campuses to take advantage of the abundant pigeons and squirrels there.
The red-tailed hawk may take an occasional chicken or small housecat, but really not often and not nearly as frequently as folks used to believe. Back in the old days, farmers used to shoot every "chicken hawk" that they could to protect their hens and other poultry, but would often lose the farm birds anyway to weasels and rats that would get into the henhouse and eat the eggs or attack the adult birds. Given the chance, the hawk could have been a powerful ally in the control of such nuisance animals and might have helped reduce their numbers. Today, a farmer would be lucky to have one of these "flying mousetraps" who works for free!
Pairs of red-tailed hawks will mate for life. They construct nests that are platforms of sticks, often high in a pine or oak tree in a dense area of woods that adjoin open areas. A mated pair may use the same nest year after year, adding a new lining of moss or cedar twigs each spring to help cushion two to five eggs during their incubation. After hatching, the fuzzy white chicks grow rapidly and eagerly await frequent deliveries of small rodents, amphibians, or snakes from their attentive parents. A long-lived bird, it is believed that this species can live up to 20 years in the wild.
Equipped with strong, hooked beaks for tearing meat and extremely sharp talons (claws) for grasping, the red-tailed hawk is superbly able to swoop down on its intended prey and carry it up to a high perch to consume at its leisure. Their eyes are quite large and provide excellent vision over great distances. These birds spend much of their time "still hunting", where they perch high above the ground and stare intently at the surrounding terrain as they wait for their prey to come into view. This is often when we see them as we drive through the Illinois countryside. While many of our familiar backyard birds need only to see insects and seeds right in front of them, the red-tailed hawk must spot its living prey on the ground often while soaring high above. When it spots its target, the hawk tucks in its wings and dives down quickly (often at speeds of 100 mph or faster), swooping in at the last second while extending its feet and talons to grasp and swipe it up. Most of the time the animal dies quickly when the talons penetrate its body, after which the hawk flaps away to a lofty perch to feed in solitude.
People have always been fascinated by hawks, perhaps because they are aggressive, powerful hunters that can kill with speed and efficiency. Gorgeous birds to the appreciative eye, these magnificent aerial hunters are usually totally unconcerned by living in close proximity to humans near farms and even urban areas. They are big and majestic, and they intrigue us as we watch them effortlessly soar for miles on rising columns of warm air before gently settling down to perch in the tallest tree.
On my daily walk in the country, I often hear that familiar hoarse, piercing, drawn-out scream, "Keeearrrrr!!!" as I round the bend near an open meadow along the roadway. A red-tailed hawk soaring high above daily patrols the open field near the stream. I look for him each day and often watch as he glides across the open space in search of his next meal. He is quite beautiful, even from a distance. Seeing him, I'm reminded that these magnificent birds were persecuted in the past simply because we failed to understand how they fit into the natural world. Today thanks to conservation-minded citizens, all birds of prey, including the red-tails, are protected by state and federal laws.
I have never seen my red-tailed friend swoop down in a steep dive, grasp a prey animal in its talons, and carry it off. I'm still looking forward to witnessing that rare sight -- maybe tomorrow.