“Anyone who has ever stopped to watch a hawk in flight will know that this is one of the natural world’s most elegant phenomena.” — John Burnside
Recently I was driving on a picture safari in the northern end of the county around the Copeland Bridge area, when I spotted a raptor which I used to call a “chicken hawk” in my youth. I stopped to take a picture of this large hawk perched in the top of a tree beside the Kootenai River. After taking the picture I consulted my “Birds of Idaho Field Guide” and identified it as a red-tailed hawk.
The red-tailed hawk is one of three species colloquially know in the United States as the “chicken hawk,” although it rarely preys on standard-sized chickens.
The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most common hawk in Boundary County. They were named for the variety of hawks that have a brick-red tail. Male and female red-tailed hawks basically look alike, though the females are larger.
If you have sharp eyes you’ll see several individuals on almost any long ride in North Idaho. Red-tailed hawks soar above open fields, slowly turning circles on their broad, rounded wings. Other times you’ll see them atop telephone poles, eyes fixed on the ground to catch the movements of a rabbit or a mouse, or simply waiting out cold weather before climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.
The red-tailed hawk is a top predator. The hawks use tall perches to spot their prey in the open spaces next to roads. They also hunt from the air. As the red-tailed hawk circles and soars, they can spot a mouse from 100 feet in the air. When it spots a rodent, rabbit, or other prey scurrying, it swoops down and grabs its meat in its talons. Once the hawk grabs its prey, it usually flies back up to its perch to eat it.
Red-tailed hawks often mate for life. The pair makes a stick nest typically in the crown of tall trees, where they have a commanding view of the landscape. They will use the nest year after year, so it grows bigger and bigger. The female hawk lays one to five eggs, which are white with brown spots. The parents take turns sitting on the eggs, keeping them warm and safe.
Baby red-tailed hawks are covered with white down feathers. The hawk parents feed their hatchlings until the young birds can leave the nest, usually when they’re about six weeks old.
Red-tailed hawks are large, sharp-taloned birds that can be aggressive when defending their nest or territories, frequently chasing other hawks, eagles, and great horned owls. Courting birds fly with legs hanging beneath them, or chase and swoop after each other, sometimes locking talons.
The best way to find red-tailed hawks in Boundary County is to go for a drive, keeping your eyes peeled along fence posts, telephone poles and in the sky. Chances are good that the first hawk you see will be a red-tailed hawk. When identifying the red-tailed hawk, make sure it has rounded wings and a short tail, with field marks like the dark bars on the leading edge of the wing.
The oldest known red-tailed hawk was at least 30 years, 8 months old when it was found in Michigan in 2011, the same state where it was banded in 1981.
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