The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, September 19, 2003


Red-tailed Hawk

Name: Buteo jamaicensis or the Red-tailed Hawk is also sometimes known as the buzzard hawk, eastern redtail, hen hawk, mouse hawk, red hawk, or just plain redtail. "Hawk" is a common name loosely used for raptors in three genera: the Accipiters, the Falcons and the Buteos. Members of the genus Buteo are called Buzzard Hawks in the Roger Tory Peterson field guide. There are 14 sub-species of the Red-tailed Hawk. The main species name, jamaicensis, is because it was first identified in Jamaica.

When and where seen: The juvenile redtail in the photo was seen at Fraser Farm on Russell Street in late August by a neighbor, Bill Brady. It came crashing down through the trees after a gray squirrel which it succeeding in catching. He photographed another juvenile last year in April as it dined on what may have been a starling. You can often spot a hawk by looking for mobbing bluejays or crows.

Distinguishing characteristics: The redtail is a chunky bird about 19 inches long with broad wings, a broad red tail, and a four-foot wingspan. It has a dark, hooked beak, yellow legs and feet, three forward-pointing toes and one backward-pointing each equipped with a long sharp talon. There is a wide variety in plumage colors, from light auburn to dark brown. The underside is lighter than the rest of the body and usually has a darker band across the belly. The juvenile in the photo shows the typical yellowish gray eye color that will change to dark brown as it matures.

Habitat: The Red-tailed Hawk is a very adaptable bird, equally at home in a variety of habitats and at varying heights above sea level. Their main territory consists of large wooded areas surrounded by open fields and pastures. They usually nest in tall trees in large twiggy nests about 35 to 70 feet above the ground. In 1996 a pair of red-tails built a nest and raised two young on an apartment house in New York City at Fifth Avenue and 75th Street · evidence of their adaptability.

Voice: The sound is a hoarse, rasping scream · keeeer-r-r · with a downward inflection. Bill reports that the redtails in his neighborhood are extremely loud and it seems as if the blue jays sometimes mimic them.

The vision thing: Hawks have the highest density of nerve receptors recorded in any eye. They can see mice while soaring 100 feet above the ground. Their eyes are specially adapted for rapid change of focus · an important attribute for critters whose aerial dives reach 120 mph. It brings new meaning to the phrase, "Are we there yet?"

Food: Redtails eat mainly rodents such as mice, rats and squirrels. They are capable of taking a rabbit. They also eat birds, snakes and a few invertebrates.

Migration: Redtails are not true migratory birds. If food is plentiful, they stay around their nesting sites. They have been recorded in the Carlisle Christmas bird count in all but two years since 1973.

References: David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds; Roger Tory Peterson, A Field Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies; University Of Michigan, Museum of Zoology at

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito