The Red-Tail

By Doug Pifer

The crowd gasped as the released hawk flew strongly to a perch twenty feet up a tree. After looking around to get its bearings, it launched itself once again and flew away across the countryside.

The group had assembled  at Claytonville Farm, near Millwood , to witness the release of a red-tailed hawk by the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center. Six weeks ago the bird had been discovered standing in the parking lot of a bank, unresponsive and unable to fly. Heather Sparks, a staff wildlife rehabilitator, picked up the bird and brought it to the center where Dr. Belinda Burwell, the center’s veterinarian and director, determined that the bird was an immature bird in a weak, emaciated condition near starvation. After several weeks of careful feeding, weighing and monitoring, the bird had gained weight and was placed in a special outdoor enclosure where it could fly freely and exercise its wings, building up strength until it was ready for release back into the wild.

Before she  released the hawk, Burwell explained to the Claytonville Farm gathering that red-tailed hawks depend upon their ability to hunt mice, squirrels, and other small animals. Hawks in their first year of life are particularly vulnerable during fall migration season. A minor accident or injury that lays them up for several days threatens their survival. No one knows what calamity befell the young hawk before it was found, but it could now continue on its way.

Red-tails are common in this part of the country. Lordly in demeanor, with a rasping, echoing scream, they exemplify to me everything a hawk should be. During autumn and winter they’re the hawks you are most likely to see perched along roadsides on fence posts or dead trees, scanning the ground for prey.

Adult red-tails measure nearly 20 inches from beak tip to tail, with a four-foot wing span. With piercing light brown eyes the size of a man’s, they have binocular vision that can pinpoint a field mouse from 50 feet in the air. Thick, yellow toes tipped with inch-long, curved talons look truly fearsome. But red-tailed hawks are gentle giants. One that’s perched in the open for any length of time is likely to be mobbed by crows and other birds. When it flies away, the crows follow in hot pursuit. But the hawk never seems to fight back.

Many folks keep poultry in their backyards these days, and occasionally lose a free-roaming chicken to a predator. Seeing the scattered feathers, people often blame the red-tailed hawk they see sitting on a nearby perch.  During the 19th and early 20th centuries, farmers used to routinely shoot them, calling them “chicken hawks.”

The truth is a red-tailed hawk is probably over-equipped for the prey she hunts. For many years the USDA gathered data on the stomach contents of all hawks and owls that were shot as predators. Overwhelmingly the crops of red-tailed hawks contained the remains of rodents and other small animals. This led to the eventual federal and state protection of all hawks and owls. Now it is illegal to capture, trap, or shoot any bird of prey.

In the 20 years my wife and I have kept poultry, we’ve never lost one to a hawk. Great horned owls, foxes, raccoons and dogs are the most likely culprits, in our experience. While a red-tail, particularly a young bird, will often come by and perch near our birds and cause an uproar among them, I believe they are more interested in catching the emboldened rodents attracted by chicken feed.