It is not uncommon on your drive to your favorite fishing spot to pass a hawk sitting on a post, light standard or tree. What you may not realize is that that same hawk may not have moved off that pole during the time you have been out trying to hook the “big one”. Most likely that patient bird was a Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).
This pole sitting is but one technique this predator uses to hunt it prey. The green margins along our highways and byways provide perfect habitat for mice and meadow voles. The bird’s sharp eyes (about 12 times more powerful than ours) spot movement in the grass and then the hawk drops, talons first, for the kill. (The actual kill is done not by the talons so much but rather with a skull piercing thrust of the bird’s beak.)
This is not their only method of hunting. The hawk’s broad wings allow it to soar on thermals and it can do this for hours at a time as it looks for a telltale movement below.
This hawk is one of the largest hawks found in North America. Males weigh between 690 and 1600 grams (1.5 to 3.5 pounds) and have a wing span of110 to 145 cm (43-57 inches). Females are about 25% heavier. (Note: Among mammals males are usually larger than females but among birds this sexual dimorphism is often the reverse.)
Red-tails are generalists in their choice of habitats. As farmlands replaced forests this species embraced the change but they are just as comfortable hunting in open forests, plains, deserts, high altitudes or low, tropical rainforests and urban streets.
In Mississauga where I live some red-tails have become specialist in taking the abundant grey squirrels; even those in my own backyard! Once while visiting the National Zoo in Washington D.C. a hawk took a squirrel right in front of a crowd of us. City dwelling Red-tails have achieved a bit of fame in both New York City and Toronto. Yet they are very much at home in the wildest parts of the continent.
Red-tails during the breeding season defend a home territory of roughly 390 hectares (1.5 square miles) or larger depending on rich the range is. Resident birds may occupy this same area year round but migrants are only there during the breeding season which lasts from February through to June. These hawks prefer to nest fairly high off the ground in the crotch of a tree. One to five eggs are laid about two days apart. Incubation by both sexes in turn likely starts when the first egg is hatched, Chicks hatch in the order the eggs were laid. This helps ensure that at least a few of the young will survive to fledging. The first out may fall victim to a cold spell but if it survives it will be larger in size that its siblings and this gives it an advantage when the parents bring food.
In years when food is abundant all the chicks may survive but in poor years only one may live.
By June most of the young are fully fledged and will soon be able to hunt. They will be three or four years old before they seek a mate. Pairs return to the same territory once established and remain together until death. Territories are defended by both sexes. Courting however is a yearly thing as they renew their vows.
There are not many places in Canada where you cannot expect to hear the screeching call of this bird as it soars overhead.
Note: A version of this article first appeared in Bob Izumi's Real Fishing Magazine in
Dave's column At the Water's Edge. It is used with the permission of editor.
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