The Red Tail is our most common and widespread North American Hawk. It is also one of the largest and most powerful of our hawks. If you see a large hawk in the summer, sitting in trees or on a light pole, it is probably a Red Tail. Though they are common, there is a variety of color morph's which makes positive identification not always easy. The immature hawk does not have a red tail and this can be confusing to some. In the youngsters the tail is brownish and finely barred. The color phases can range from light to dark and almost any range in between. Most Red Tails have a dark belly band, but some have none or very faint ones. The darker Harlan or melanistic phase may be completely dark on it's breast and belly and this adds to the confusion. This latter problem in identification is more often seen in the winter, as many more Red Tails will come farther south to spend the colder months. The only other fairly common large winter hawk in this part of the Great Plaines is the Rough-legged, which often comes down from the far North to hunt and loaf in our country. Although the Rough-legged appears as large as the Red Tail it doesn't compare in weight. The male Red Tail weighs from two to two and one half pounds and the larger female tips the scales at three pounds and up. The Rough-legged will weigh in at three quarters to a pound less than the Red Tails.
The food source is usually some form of smaller mammal, up to the size of a rabbit. They depend mostly on mice and voles, but include Red and Gray squirrels, ground squirrels, various other rodents, snakes, fish trapped in shallow pools, some birds and even large insects. When you see these birds soaring a hundred yards or more up over an open field, they are probably hunting as they have very keen eyesight. Hawks and Owls have binocular vision, which gives them the depth perception needed to catch live prey. Birds have the best eyesight of any animal and the hawk family is at the top of the ladder. They depend mostly on their sight, but at times are assisted by their acute hearing as well.
The Red Tail builds a good sized nest in the crotch of a tall tree, when they are available. This will normally give them a panoramic view of the adjacent area so they can look out for any danger. This hawk can easily be disturbed during the nesting time and may abandon the eggs if human intrusion becomes too aggressive. The female will lay two to three eggs, which will take about thirty days to hatch. The young will begin picking at food, on their own at about a week old. They start to feather out in three weeks and can often fly in six weeks. After they leave the nest, the adults continue to feed them for three weeks or more. They then learn to hunt for themselves and soon become independent drifting away from the family, never to return. Unfortunately the mortality rate of first year Red Tails is about 70%.
There have been reports of these hawks flying off with Rattlesnakes and Copperheads, both of which are poisonous, being bit and later dying from the bites. I guess there is a risk in making a living at all levels. When you are out on a clear day, listen carefully for the descending kree call of the Red Tail hawk as it will add to your enjoyment of our wilderness experience.