The Highway Hawk


By Karen Menard

A red-tailed hawk can easily be identified from a vehicle going 55 mph. Its robust, lurking silhouette is sometimes hard to miss along the interstate or a rural road perched on a tree, utility line or pole.

Most of us have probably spied these widespread, highly efficient hunters more than once, either on the move, flying high in the sky, or waiting quietly for a rodent, snake or small mammal to wander by for a quick meal. Red-tails can be found almost anywhere above and among our own urban backyards, agricultural fields, wetlands and forests. They usually seek out the edges of farm fields or open meadows looking for easy prey.

This species is part of the “buteo” group of raptors -- “bulky” yet skilled predators built for soaring the skies with a wingspan of around four feet wide.

In addition to their other amazing hunting abilities, red-tails possess a good sense of hearing and also an incredibly magnified sense of vision that is eight times better than ours! In flight, they can spot a rodent or shrew on the ground from 100 feet in the air as they scan the landscape below. Swift diving maneuvers also enhance their hunting abilities, as they may reach speeds of 120 mph at times.

During these dives, their eyes are actually shielded from any dust or debris by a special, third eyelid, called a nictitating membrane -- similar to having a convenient pair of goggles ready to go in an instant.

As predators at the top of the food chain, raptors like the red-tailed hawk have been identified as key indicators of ecosystem health. They are beneficial to local ecosystems and crucial to maintaining an important balance by helping to keep the populations of prey species healthy and in check.

Metroparks such as Wildwood, Oak Openings, Secor, Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Pearson are home to nesting red-tailed hawks in March, April and May. During the winter, they can be seen from the trails sitting in a pair, out hunting prey or flying high above their nesting territory. 

Did you know?

Adult red-tailed hawks only weigh between 3 and 4 pounds. Juvenile birds don’t sport their red tail feathers until the start of their second year.


Photo, top: Perched red-tail hawk, by Art Weber/Metroparks

Video: Adult red-tailed hawk hunting a shrew under the leaf litter last month at Wildwood, by Jason Ellis

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