By Sharon Stiteler
Sharon Stiteler runs Birdchick.com and wrote the books "City Birds/Country Birds" and "Disapproving Rabbits." She leads bird trips, does bird surveys around the country and works part time as a national park ranger.
Highways in the Twin Cities metro area offer great views of the red-tailed hawk. These large, chunky birds are easily visible perched on light posts, billboards or telephone poles.
Generally, red-tailed hawks have a white chest, sometimes with a brown belly band, brown feathers on the back with a few smaller white feathers forming a "V" shape and rusty red tail. Immature red-tails have a brown striped tail. There's individual variation, with some red-tails being completely dark-chocolate brown all over except the tail. There is also a "Krider's red-tail" that is overall very pale, and the tail can even be a cream color rather than red.
One of our most common birds of prey in the state, red-tails are part of the genus buteo, large, beefy raptors that tend to go for mammals. Their hefty shape is a good way to distinguish them from the sleeker genus of hawks known as accipiters, which includes the Cooper's hawk, a bird commonly seen around backyard birdfeeders hunting sparrows and starlings. Buteos have long, broad wings ideal for soaring open areas to hunt mice, rats, rabbits, squirrels and even snakes.
Highways offer ample hunting ground. Litter thrown from cars attracts mice and rats, and light posts provide excellent perches for hawks to watch for small furry things. Cars also do a good job of killing raccoons and rabbits, providing a fast-food meal. Sometimes hawks don't have to kill anything, but need only fly down and eat the car-tenderized carcasses.
Though roadsides and highways offer vermin bounty, they are not the safest hunting environment. A focused hawk, especially a young, inexperienced bird, can misjudge vehicle speed and collide with a windshield. Car collisions are a common injury among birds of prey brought in to the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center.
Red-tailed hawks build large stick nests in trees. If you suspect you see a hawk nest, check to see whether it is round and leafy or flatter and all sticks. If it is round and leafy, that is a squirrel nest, but if it's all sticks, it's a hawk nest.
One of the challenges that red-tailed hawks face is from great horned owls that take over their nests. The nocturnal owls start nesting in January and do not build nests of their own. Great horned owls usually take over an old hawk or squirrel nest. When a red-tail is ready to lay eggs in March, it may find a great horned owl squatting and incubating eggs in the old nest, in which case the red-tail will build elsewhere ... and the owl will plot to take over that nest the following winter.
February is when a red-tailed hawk's fancy turns to thoughts of nest building. These hawks get very active this time of year, and territory squabbles can take place right over the cars and trucks zooming along the streets. If you see two red-tails perched side by side on a light post, you can give them a mental high-five. That's the equivalent of second base for hawks. Sharing a perch is intimate stuff for these usually solitary hunters, and could lead to sharing a clutch of eggs to incubate.
Though our highways can be dangerous territory to navigate, these adaptable birds of prey have learned how to survive around them relatively well. In turn, we get to view these majestic birds even when we are stuck in the dullest of traffic jams.