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Commentary by Sarah Brewer Thompson
| Thursday, Dec 12, 2013

sarahbrewerthompson_mugOne of the most majestic birds we have in Santa Clarita – and a personal favorite of mine – is the red-tailed hawk.

They are actually one of the most common birds of prey in the United States, and because of their extreme adaptability, they can be seen in downtown Los Angeles as well as in the mountains and countryside.

Because of their adaptability and healthy population, they are also one of the most commonly used birds in North American falconry.

Red-tailed hawks also hold special spiritual significance for many Native Californian groups, with their strong presence, impeccable hunting skills and beautiful feathers holding special meaning.

Ever since I was a small child, I always thought of them as watchful spirits in the sky, ever observant of what is going on around them.

Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson

Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson

Red-tailed hawks are included in the Buteo genus of raptors, which includes red-shouldered hawks, Swainson’s hawks and Ferruginous hawks. Buteos are characterized by their broad wings and robust, sturdy bodies.

Red-tails are found all over the North American continent and are in most U.S. states year-round. They can often been seen perched on fences, street lights, freeway signs, telephone poles or branches.

Like all raptors, they are supremely adapted for hunting. They have four toes per foot, each with a large, sharp talon. They have a sturdy, large, sharp beak for tearing meat. They are true carnivores, and their varied diet often includes small to medium-sized rodents (gophers, rats, rabbits and hares), reptiles (rattlesnakes, lizards, and gopher snakes), and smaller birds (including other raptors).

Their talons are extremely strong, exerting upward of 65 pounds per square inch of pressure, which is strong enough to break the bones in a human hand.

Being diurnal, they are active and hunt during the day and rest at night. They are patient hunters and will look for prey as they sit on a high perch or soar 200-250 feet in the air, scoping out what is beneath them. They will cruise the skies and wait for food to come along, then swoop down and use their powerful talons to grab prey.

Like other raptors, red-tailed hawks display sexual dimorphism, meaning there is a visual difference between males and females.

Female red-tails are up to 30 percent larger than the males and are one of the largest birds in the Santa Clarita area, other than the rarely seen golden eagle and the more commonly seen turkey vulture.

Because of their physical similarities to eagles, if you see a large enough red-tail, they can often be confused for an eagle. That is, until you see a golden eagle and realize how huge they are. Fully grown red-tailed hawks typically weight 2.5 to 3 pounds, while a golden eagle can weigh more than 12 pounds.

hawk3Mature red-tails are typically 17-25 inches in length, weigh 1.5 to 3.3 pounds, and have an average wingspan of 43-56 inches. It might be surprising to learn that such a large bird weighs around three pounds, but as in other birds, their bones are thin and hollow to allow for flight. As a result, however, this makes them somewhat fragile and puts them in danger if they fight with another bird or run into something. Many red-tails that come into rehab centers have injured wings or eyes, which are two of the most delicate parts of their otherwise tough bodies.

Unlike some other raptor species, red-tails can be difficult to identify because of the wide variety in color, ranging from very light to very dark. The differentiation depends most greatly on genetics, health, age and the season.

Their distinctive tail is a beautiful rusty red from above with thin, horizontal black stripes near the tip. The tail is not red from below – which often confuses observers because that is most commonly the side you see. The coloring on the body is lighter from below and darker from above, with a dark or black bar along the leading edge of the wing. The underside can be dark and mottled, or it can be a rich ivory color. They are often confused with their Buteo cousins, the red-shouldered hawk.

Aside from their large size, impressive hunting skills and beautiful appearance, there is more to this awesome animal, including their call.

Their call is a distinctive loud, harsh, down-slurred scream that is often prolonged, sounding like “kee-ahrrr.” Interestingly, it is often confused with that of an eagle because the film industry has utilized the red-tailed hawk’s scream for sound effects to depict eagles in TV and movies.

While the red-tail’s scream is so iconic, it is almost humorous to compare it to the call of a bald eagle, which makes a less intimidating series of chirps and squeaking noises.

Another characteristic that impresses many is that these birds are monogamous, meaning they mate for life. Their courting display is fascinating to watch if you are lucky enough to see one: They soar up into the air, swirling around and calling to each other in what seems like an aerial ballet.

Debra Goodwin handles Looks Twice at Vasquez Rocks.

Debra Goodwin handles Looks Twice at Vasquez Rocks.

If you have seen a bird presentation or visited the bird enclosures at Vasquez Rocks, you have probably seen a very large, beautiful bird in the first mew – a red-tailed hawk named Looks Twice. As with the other birds that reside at Vasquez Rocks, Looks Twice lives in captivity because she is non-releasable. She is about 12 years old (born in 2001) and came to live at Vasquez when she was about 1 year old.

Looks Twice was first brought in to Hart Park with an injured left eye. She recovered fully, but unfortunately is completely blind in her left eye. If you look closely and compare her two eyes, the right eye is a beautiful golden brown color, while the left is very dark and cloudy.

For such a powerful yet fragile bird, having limited vision would be life-threatening for Looks Twice if she were released back into the wild. She would fly into something or not be able to hunt, and would become prey for another animal.

Because of her partial vision, she was named “Looks Twice” by a Native American local and has been a big part of the Vasquez Rocks family since she arrived. Although like the other birds, her story is sad, she has served as an amazing teaching tool, allowing thousands of people of all ages to see her up-close. It is a treat to see the reactions on the faces of people in awe of her strength and beauty – something you don’t get to see when they are soaring high above you.

Based on the lifespans of other red-tailed hawks in captivity, Looks Twice could live to 22-25 years because she is in excellent health. We are all hoping she has a long, happy life with us, and we know she will continue to serve as an ambassador for her species.

Feel free to come and visit Looks Twice and the other amazing animals at Vasquez Rocks – one of the most beautiful places in Santa Clarita.

 

Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.

 

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5 Comments

  1. David Tanner says:

    Thanks for a great informative article on the Red Tailed Hawk.

  2. I enjoyed reading your article and learning more about the hawk who we share the environment with. A great piece of writing. I’ll be planning a trip to see the hawks really soon.

  3. Tony Biegen says:

    Great article. I think you’ve covered everything known about Red Tails. They’re also one of my favorite local birds.

  4. Darla Buchalla says:

    Hi Sarah – It was great to read you article and view the great photos. I love to watch the hawks also! Thanks!

  5. Sarah Thompson says:

    Thanks all! Very glad you enjoyed it. They really are remarkable birds, aren’t they? We are very lucky that they still have a healthy population out here. Now just need to work on the condors! (Wouldn’t that be something?)

    Sarah T.

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