The red-tailed hawk is one of the most common hawks in Indiana and North America. It is one of nine hawks found in Indiana. The others are sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, northern goshawk, re-shouldered, broad-winged, Swainson’s, ferruginous, and rough-legged hawks.
It has also been lumped with the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks under the unofficial term “chicken hawk.” Red-tailed hawks are opportunistic hunters, and if nothing else is available they may go after free-range poultry.
Red-tailed hawks are noted for their soaring abilities, using thermals and updrafts to soar for up to two miles without flapping their wings. They are also known for their call — a sound used in movies and TV whenever a sound is needed for a large bird, including eagles.
During warm weather, go for a drive and you will most likely see several of these perched in trees, on fence posts, utility poles or anything that gives them a vantage point in the search for food.
Their diet is mostly voles, mice, wood rats, rabbits and ground squirrels. They will at times eat other birds, such as bobwhites and starlings. They will also eat snakes, amphibians and carrion if necessary. I once watched one eat a woodpecker at Thornwood Preserve. It didn’t seem to mind me standing there, just looked up now and then to make sure I wasn’t any closer.
Males can get up to 23 inches tall with a wingspan of four to five feet; females are a bit larger (up to 25 percent) getting up to 25 inches tall, but they have about the same wingspan.
Pairs of red-tail hawks tend to stay together until one of them dies. Both will build the nest or may refurbish a previous nest. Made of dry sticks, it can get up to six-and-a-half feet tall and three feet across. The nest will be lined with bark and fresh foliage and takes about a week to build. The nests are built in the crown of a tall tree to obtain a view for hunting.
They normally will lay two to five eggs that will take 28 to 35 days to hatch. The chicks, called eyasses, are born tiny and helpless and will weigh about two ounces. The female is the primary nest-sitter and the male will bring her food or sit on the nest if she wants to stretch her wings.
Once the chicks are born, the male will bring food for everybody; the female will then tear the meat into tiny pieces for the chicks.
Somewhere between 42 and 46 days, the chicks leave the nest for short flights, and then at about six to seven weeks, they will begin to hunt on their own. At four months, they become independent and leave to live on their own. Red-tailed hawks normally don’t mate until about three years of age. They can live up to 25 years in the wild.
One fact not generally known about red-tailed hawks is they are used in falconry, primarily for beginners, especially in the U.S. where falconry is tightly regulated. They are used because of their sociability and train-ability, second only to the Harris’s Hawk.
The falconer lets the hawk perch in a tree and watches while the falconer and a dog flush out the game. The only problem is that the hawk will not bring the game back so it must be hunted down and the game caught traded for a piece of offered meat.