Oakland County’s Highway Patrol: Red-Tailed Hawks

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

I first become aware of Red-tailed Hawks in rural Connecticut. I was a five or six-year-old nature-hungry kid running barefoot through the meadow that led to a musty barn full of magical things, and then it was on to my favorite forbidden destination: “grandma’s shack”. Red-tails soared above the meadow and I fell in love with their sharp cry. My dad told me that the neighbors called them, chicken hawks. He liked them; so did I. I vaguely remember the horror of seeing some hanging dead on fences. Those are my first recollections of any bird of prey. But the history of birds of prey, and the way humans interacted with them go back thousands of years to the sport of falconry.

Falconry is the sport of using raptors to hunt wild quarry in natural habitat by means of a trained bird of prey. Sometimes the bird of prey would be a falcon. Sometimes an eagle or hawk. In the far distant past however, falconry was not used as a sport or as a pastime, but mainly as a means to catch food for the family. Regulated falconry flourishes today, and the bird of choice for many is the Red-tailed Hawk. Bonding with the hawk is a necessity, and once accomplished the pair shares mutual attraction and loyalty.

 

The Red–tailed Hawk is found across North America and without a doubt is the most visible hawk of Oakland County. An adult Red-tail is easily identified by its rusty red tail feathers, soaring behavior, and piercing call. Spring is courtship and nesting season. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes their dramatic courtship ritual: “Courting Red-tailed Hawks put on a display in which they soar in wide circles at a great height. The males dive steeply, then shoot up again at an angle nearly as steep. After several of these swoops he approaches the female from above, extends his legs, and touches her briefly.  Sometimes the pair grab onto one another, clasp talons, and plummet in spirals toward the ground before pulling away.”

 

Their nests are large structures made of sticks and lined with dry vegetation and fresh foliage and are usually located near the crowns of trees. We have numerous Red-tail nests in the county, but they can be hard to spot. Red-tails are not, however, hard to hear. Just look up in the sky on a bright sunny day when a sudden raspy scream that lasts a few seconds draws your attention. Red-tails vocalize in flight and when defending territory and their young. You may know the call already. Movie producers use it as background sound in westerns, and advertisers sometimes misuse that red tail “scream” to add ear-catching drama to a commercial that has nothing to do with hawks. That was the case in a recent Volkswagen commercial. The raptor snatching a fish from the river in the critical scene is a Bald Eagle, however, the vocalization synced to the action belongs to a Red-tailed Hawk.

 

The easiest way to see a Red-tailed Hawk takes the least effort. Hop in your car and go for a drive. You need not search along rural roadways to see this beautiful hawk, but when in rural areas, look for them perched on leafless oaks overlooking a freshly tilled feed. Solitary trees are perfect perches to scan a field for rodents. Busy highways and lesser byways of our county, including heavily traveled thoroughfares such as I-75 and M-59 are also prime habitat hunting grounds. The ”highway patrol” Red-tailed Hawks perch on roadside billboards, outstretched roadside tree limbs, large exit signs, telephone poles and on occasion, street light support posts.

 

The Red-tail has extremely keen eyesight and these roadside perches provide excellent vantage points to watch the ground for squirrels, rabbits, mice, voles and once it warms, snakes. Fox squirrels are an exceptionally easy target in suburban neighborhoods where they gather in numbers to scrounge near bird feeders to clean up winter spillage. The Hawk swoops fast and low, and before the squirrel is even aware of any danger the powerful talons hit, and the kill is made. The squirrel is often back to the nest or consumed on the safety of tree limbs, but sometimes it occurs on the ground as in these images from Oakland County.

Photo courtesy of Barrie Lynn Wood

Hawks in urbanized areas are well accustomed to the flow of traffic and noise of vehicles, but if a driver pulls to the side for a closer look they fly off. On rare occasions, fast flying prey pursuit and swooping low, ends poorly for the hawk as was the case in Milford, Massachusetts in late February when a Red-tailed Hawk winged in front of a car and ended up trapped in the grill. This hawk extraction video is courtesy of the Milford Massachusetts Police.

Spring has arrived and the roads will soon be busy with holiday travelers, spring break celebrants, and spontaneous road trips. Watch the billboards on your journeys. Billboards are now more than the nationwide movie-set hiding places for police officers that run radar; they remain the perfect perches for our magnificent Red-tailed Hawks to wait for meaty meals on the move.  Watch your speed, watch for hawks, and make your road trip a “road raptor patrol” for the children in your car. See who spots the first hawk. It won’t take long, for whether your journey is in an urban area, on the “Wilder Side of Oakland County” or anywhere else in our country, one fact remains the same; the sky and billboards belong to the Red-Tailed Hawk.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.


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