Staying Put at Lathrop: Red Tailed Hawks

by Barbara Walvoord

First published in Lathrop Lamp Post, Dec. 2-8, 2017

A few weeks, ago, I wrote about barred owls, who stay put here in winter, rather than migrating.  Another bird that stays put in our neck of the woods is the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). It can stay put because it eats mammals who also stay put during winter, like chipmunks, rabbits, mice, voles, snakes, and birds. But even with the abundance of prey that Lathrop land offers, a red-tail has many problems to solve, and more than half of healthy fledglings fail to reach adulthood.

First problem: FIND the prey.  Red-tails hunt by perching and pouncing.  A hawk has to know that a perch on a pole over a parking lot is less productive than an open field.  A bird feeder is a wonderful concentration of prey.  Hawks may look like they’re just soaring around at random, but studies show they move purposefully from one productive perch to another.

Next problem: how do you SEE a mouse from a tree branch 100 feet away?  Hawks’ eyes are 8 times as powerful as ours, and, like us, they have a wide field of vision.  Our big brains process multiple types of visual information; a hawks tinier brain focuses on identifying movements of prey.

Next problem: how do you CATCH those little critters that quickly scamper or fly away? Speed. Red-tails dive at 120 miles per hour.

Final problem: How do you KILL your prey? The hawk clutches the prey with its talons, controlling and sometimes suffocating it, while the beak tears into the body.  Talons on separate toes can be used for holding or tearing.  A three-pound red-tail can take a pheasant, cat, or chicken up to five pounds. That’s like a 200-pound human killing a 340-pound pig with only teeth and fingernails.

A wild red-tail hawk banded in Michigan in 1981 was caught again, still alive, 30 years later.  At Lathrop, we work to protect the hunting grounds on which these amazing hunters can stay put in winter, solve problems, and have a long life.


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