2014-05-01 / Nature

Powerful Birds of Prey are Back

By Jack Kelly


Male Red-tailed Hawk struggles to capture a mouse in the thick grass at Sachuest Point. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Male Red-tailed Hawk struggles to capture a mouse in the thick grass at Sachuest Point. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Birders across Newport County have reported that a number of avian species have completed their courtship and breeding rituals and are now actively nesting and incubating eggs. Depending upon the breed, nests can be found on the ground in thick scrub brush, tucked into tree cavities, between the branches of small trees or shrubs, on man-made structures, or high in forests.

In Middletown, one pair of Redtailed Hawks has returned to a nest high in a gnarled pine tree for the third recorded year. They first returned in early March and delighted visitors at the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge and the Norman Bird Sanctuary with their powerful displays of flight and hunting. Despite the colder-than-average temperatures and wintry weather at the time, the hawks’ arrival heralded the oncoming spring season.


Recently, a rare, migrant White-faced Ibis (front) was sighted mixed in with a flock of approximately 150-200 migratory Glossy Ibises. The red marking around the eyes is noticeable identifier of the White-faced Ibis. (Photo by Bob Weaver) Recently, a rare, migrant White-faced Ibis (front) was sighted mixed in with a flock of approximately 150-200 migratory Glossy Ibises. The red marking around the eyes is noticeable identifier of the White-faced Ibis. (Photo by Bob Weaver) The average adult Red-tailed Hawk is 22 inches long and has a wingspan of 50-54 inches. As with most raptors, the female is larger than the male by almost onethird. In our area of the country, the bird normally has brown plumage with white spotting above, pale to snowy white feathers below, and a variable, mottled belly band. It has a vivid, rusty-red tail and presents a husky, full-winged shape in flight.

These formidable predators use their impressive eyesight, estimated to be eight times as strong as humans, to hunt from stationary perches or from flight. Hooked beaks and powerful yellow talons also offer distinct hunting advantages. Red-tailed Hawks prey mostly on rodents such as mice, voles, and rats, but may also indulge in larger animals such as rabbits and squirrels. The birds are extremely territorial; they breed, nest, and hunt within their established region, which can be as large as three square miles. In recent years, the Red-tailed Hawk population on Aquidneck has grown. It is estimated that as many as 14 to 17 nesting pairs can be found across the island.

The pair bonding between Redtailed Hawks is very strong and evidence indicates that the raptors mate for life and may even spend the off-season together. However, if one of the pair dies, the surviving hawk will most likely take another suitor after a period of mourning.

These magnificent birds of prey have unique courtship and mating rituals. They begin by soaring in circles at great heights. With the male taking the lead, both birds engage in acrobatic flight patterns, including steep dives, rapid ascents, and barrel rolls. Performing a breathtaking display of bonding and trust, the pair interlocks their talons, unites, and then, breast-tobreast, folds their wings and makes a spiral towards the ground before separating at tree-top level. They repeat this aerial ballet several more times during the mating cycle and emit the familiar and piercing “KER-EERRRRRR” as they call to each other during this dramatic sequence of events.

The female of this species lays one to three bluish-white eggs, after which she will not leave the nest during incubation, which may take 28-32 days. She is the primary protector of the nest while the male hunts for the two of them and defends their territory against interlopers. The male may feed the female as many as five or six times each day.

The chicks hatch as altricial young, who are blind and unable to raise their heads. Covered in white down, each initially weighs about two ounces. They grow slowly and require copious amounts of food. After 44 to 48 days, when the chicks are almost as large as the adults, they will begin to fledge (learn to fly).

Shortly after the young raptors are air worthy, the family will permanently depart the nest. However, the adults will still look after their young, continuing to teach the finer points of aerial performance and hunting. By late autumn, the juveniles will begin their separate lives in the wild.

Be warned that there are documented cases of humans venturing too close to Red-tailed Hawk nests, and the outcomes have not been pleasant for the folks involved. Keep a safe and respectful distance from all nests, especially those of raptors, who can inflict scalp and facial lacerations.

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