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Red Tail Hawks

Summary: Red-tail hawks are one of the largest and most common bird species in North America, which means that conservation is not generally a pressing issue. With its soaring flight patterns and interesting mating rituals, the red-tail hawk is a favorite among bird lovers.

The red-tail hawk is the most common hawk species in North America and can be found almost anywhere. You've more than likely observed a red-tail hawk slowly circling above open fields or perched along the highway on tree limbs, telephone poles, billboards or other man-made structures.

Like other hawk species, red-tail hawks are large birds with broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail. Red-tail hawks get their name from their red tail feathers, which are cinnamon colored on top, pale white or off-white below with a thin band of black running along the tip. Their underbellies are generally also pale in color, although streaked with bits of brown or black, while their backs are typically a rich chocolate brown. A dark band of color can be seen on the underside of each wing, near the leading edge. A great deal of variation has been observed in the coloring of red-tail hawks, but their distinctive red tails, streaked bellies and wing-bands make them fairly easy to identify.

While you're more likely to notice a red-tail hawk soaring below the clouds or hovering in the wind, when they do flap their strong wings, they do so heavily. Circling hawks are often searching for prey, which they attack with a slow and controlled dive towards the earth.

One of the largest birds in North America, the red-tail hawk can weigh up to three pounds, with a wingspan of up to 52 inches. Females of the species tend to grow larger than males. Their call is a raspy, shrill cry that is very distinctive.

Red-tail hawks have been known to live in nearly any type of open habitat, including grasslands, parks, fields and sparse woodlands. They eat mostly small mammals, including mice, rabbits and squirrels, but are also known to prey on some species of snakes and other birds. Red-tail hawks can carry up to five pounds in their strong, sharp talons, and in very rare cases have even carried off small cats or dogs.

The mating ritual of these majestic birds is extremely interesting to observe, including a flight display that includes the male diving steeply and then shooting up into the air again. From time to time, a pair of red-tail hawks can be observed clasping talons and copulating as they plummet through the air in a spiraling fall, breaking away shortly before colliding with the hard ground below.

The nests of these large birds are huge structures, up to three feet in width and more than six feet high. Construction of a new nest, which is performed by both the male and female, may take up to one week to complete. Not surprisingly, red-tail hawks have been known to reuse old nests from previous mating seasons rather than build a new nest each year. Rock ledges or artificial platforms are sometimes used as nesting sites, but the forked branches of tall trees are preferred, where protective parents have a full view of the landscape below. Generally a monogamous species, red-tail hawks usually stay together until one member of the pair dies.

The female red-tail hawk lays anywhere from one to five eggs in a clutch, which can be more than 2.5 inches in length. The incubation period for red-tail hawk eggs can last up to 35 days, with a nesting period of roughly 45 days. Newly hatched red-tailed hawks are very small and helpless, weighing in at only about two ounces and unable to even lift their heads.

Red-tail hawks have few natural enemies, although they may need to protect their young hatchlings from other bird species, including eagles, great horned owls and other hawks. Red-tail hawk species remain common in North America, with stable or increasing populations, so conservation is not a pressing concern in most states.

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