EA red-tailed hawk

A red-tailed hawk soars over Champaign. The barring and lack of color on the tail indicate it’s a first-year individual.

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One of my goals as a writer is to help readers cultivate connections with the natural world as they go about everyday life, which is something the students in my University of Illinois environmental writing class do as well. I think you’ll find the following profile of a common bird (by Clare Swapp) does that well. — Rob Kanter

As you drive on the interstate in much of the U.S., you are likely now and then to spot a large bird perched on a sign or post and perhaps catch a glimpse of its reddish-brown tail.

This majestic creature is a red-tailed hawk. Recently, as I was driving through central Illinois on the interstate, I decided to count how many red-tailed hawks I saw along the way.

During three hours of driving, I spotted (and positively identified) 27 red-tailed hawks, 20 perched and seven flying, which illustrates how common this bird of prey truly is. But while this raptor is widespread across North America and most people have glimpsed it, few know very much about the red-tailed hawk.

While the bird itself may not be famous, its call certainly is. The red-tailed hawk’s cry sounds exactly like you would think a bird of prey should — it’s a hoarse, high-pitched scream. This cry is so classic that you’ve probably heard it at the movies, as filmmakers attribute it to many other birds, especially bald eagles.

Although I know of no exhaustive list of all the times a red-tailed hawk’s cry has been used in film, it is certainly quite common. This is especially true in Westerns. As Melissa Kaercher points out in a post for the blog “The Sound and the Foley,” the cry can be heard in old cowboy flicks, the 2011 computer-animated feature “Rango” and Wile E. Coyote cartoons, as well as a vast array of other movies, including “Madagascar 3,” “Cabin in the Woods,” “Treasure Island” and “The Eagle.” If you’re a fan of late-night television, you’ve certainly heard the red-tailed hawk’s screech used in the intro and ending theme song of “The Colbert Report.”

If you’re really lucky, you may hear this fearsome cry as the red-tailed hawk dives to the ground to catch a meal. These birds of prey are true to their moniker, as they are strictly carnivores. In Illinois, the red-tailed hawk mainly feeds on voles, mice, rats and cottontails. They will also eat reptiles and other birds, such as pheasants and bobwhites. Basically, they will eat anything smaller than a jackrabbit.

Most accounts of red-tailed hawk behavior mention that they hunt in pairs, cooperatively guarding a tree from opposite sides in order to catch a squirrel. With some digging, I discovered that this observation leads back to a volume from American ornithologist Arthur Bent’s 1937 “Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey; Order Falconiformes.”

There, a Mr. Shelley shares his observations of a pair of red-tailed hawks: “They were first seen circling about a tree standing away from the other trees, diving at it as if pursuing some intended prey. They did no sailing but flapped in flight. As I drew nearer, a gray squirrel was seen part way down the tree, and the two Accipiters (referring to the red-tail’s taxonomic family, Accipitridae) constantly lunged at it, driving it to the top of the tree.”

Hunting isn’t the only thing red-tailed hawks do in pairs. One of the romantics of the bird world, they mate for life. This relationship begins with a spectacular courtship ritual. The male and female emit shrill calls as they fly together in high circles. The male will show off for the female by making steep dives, displaying his maneuvering skills.

In a 1974 account of red-tail courtship, the ornithologist John Hubbard observed that the male even catches prey to appeal to the female: “In his talons the male carried a limp snake, some 2 feet long and of an unidentified species. Perhaps 10 times during the period, the male circled above the female and then with quickened wingbeats he swooped down at her, trailing the snake by her as she turned over to meet him.”

Both the male and female red-tailed hawk take responsibility when it comes to rearing their young. Together, they build a nest in a high location, such as the top of a tree or the edge of a cliff, and defend it from other birds of prey. Red-tailed hawk pairs usually produce two or three eggs at a time, and they both take turns sitting on the nest during incubation. Once the chicks have hatched, the female is mainly the one to stay with them while the male is off hunting for his family.

People concerned about biodiversity loss might take heart knowing that while many other species are struggling to keep their numbers afloat, red-tailed hawks are labeled “least concern.”

They can be found living in suburban areas and even cities, and human activity doesn’t seem to bother them. In fact, highway construction helps them as it gives them more habitat to use for hunting. They also don’t have a problem nesting near humans, even using billboards to raise their young. Because of this, I’m sure red-tailed hawks will be a common sight along our interstates — and elsewhere — for generations to come.

Rob Kanter is a clinical associate professor with the UI School of Earth, Society and Environment. You can reach him via email at rkanter@illinois.edu.