New York City Birdwatcher’s Companion: Red-Tailed Hawk

This post is an excerpt from the New York City Birdwatcher’s Companion.

NYC Red-Tailed Hawk

Natural History
The red-tailed hawk is considered a buteo: a member of the accipiter family that includes most diurnal hawks. Because of their widespread distribution across much of North America, the red-tailed hawk shows the most variation in plumage out of any accipiter. Most of the feather color differences between populations are clinal, with gradual variation in plumage across changes in geography. Buteos are primarily tree-nesters but also occupy cliffs. The nests contain conifer needles, which have aromatic chemicals called terpenes that repel insects and prevent fungal disease. Red-tailed hawks can also inhabit prebuilt nests from other accipiters. The hunting behavior of this hawk depends largely on surprise. They sit atop perches awaiting prey, catching the victim with their feet in a vigorous dive.

Urban History
Historically, red-tailed hawks have thrived in urban areas. A study conducted in the Milwaukee metro area showed that manmade nests produced more young per family than natural tree nests. Some of these human-made nests included high-voltage transmission towers, civil defense sirens, and the outfield lights of a professional baseball team. Urban areas have paved roads that are lined with perch sites and provide open landscape to spot prey (and roadkill). Manmade structures are harder to access and protect red-tailed hawks from invasive great horned owls and raccoons. The most famous of the New York City red-tailed hawks is Pale Male, hatched in 1990 and still living in 927 Fifth Avenue on the Upper East Side. When the building’s co-op board attempted to evict Pale Male from its nest in 2004, NYC’s residents protected the site in outrage. Today you can visit Pale Male, or check in on the hawk family in Tomkins Square Park.

New York Red-Tailed Hawk

Identification Tips
– Male adult has broad, reddish tail
– White throat and breast with dark belly band
– Flight shape is a broad ‘U’, stiff wingbeats

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