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Red-tailed Hawk Feeding on its Prey

Red-Tailed Hawk feeding

I get calls all the time about a hawk that just visited someone’s feeder and they would like to know what kind of hawk is it?? Majority of the time the visitor is an Accipiter species like the Sharp-shinned Hawk or even the Cooper’s Hawk. The Accipiters have longer-tails and shorter-wings which allow them to chase the little birdies through the trees and shrubs. On occasions I have heard about Red-tailed Hawk stalking a feeder. Unlike the Accipiters who hunt by surprise, the Red-tailed Hawks will wait for their prey to come out in the open. The Buteos (which is the genus of the Red-tailed Hawk) have a shorter-tail and longer-wings which will allow them to soaring high up in the sky. They are also known to sit tight on a branch looking for any kind of movement and quickly swoop down on their prey when they are not looking.

Red-Tailed Hawk Feeding

Today one of my co-workers yelled down the hall that a Red-tailed Hawk just caught something at the feeder! Quickly I grabbed my camera and ran down the hall to see what happened. I captured a few shots (was a good distance away, sorry about the quality of the photos) and I was amazed how quickly it devoured this small critter. I feel confident that this hawk captured a small mammal due to not finding any feathers (most birds pluck the feathers away) and then closely examination the prey in the photographs. These small mammals could include meadow voles, mice, or even squirrels that might be hiding around the feeder. I have heard stories about how they witnessed a Red-tailed Hawk chasing a squirrel around a tree and then came within inches of actually catching it.

Hawk Toes

Obviously when a Red-tailed Hawk captures that squirrel the hawk needs to kill its prey as quickly as possible. If they fail to do so, the squirrel could bite the hawks toes and try to force it to let it go. This picture above shows a dead Red-tailed Hawk that was recently brought into the office. After closely inspecting it, we realized that it had numerous bite marks on its feet. Although this bird probably passed away from a vehicle strike, there was always a chance that it could have gotten an infection in its toes and then increased it chances of dieing from starvation (for not being able to use its feet properly).

19 responses

  1. Didi

    Never realize they could be bitten when holding a prey.

    Great captures Tom

    7 February 2007 at 10:04 pm

  2. Sweet!!!!!!!
    I like to show my audiences the “tooth” on our peregrine, Lucy, and talk about how it helps the bird break the neck of their prey. They may be fierce and people may say “eewww” but at least they try to dispatch their food quickly.
    What really blows me away about the picture is that those blue jays are just sitting there!
    Susan (the one who is always on the raptor’s side)

    8 February 2007 at 12:10 am

  3. I love learning something new every day. I never thought about their feet getting bitten. I always just thought they grabbed and killed immediately!
    Did the bluejays feel safe temporarily because the hawk was absorbed in his catch?
    Even though I feel bad the hawk is dead in the last photo, I do love seeing the feathers close up and the water beading up on them.

    8 February 2007 at 4:10 am

  4. @ Didi, I guess they need to do whatever is needed to get free. For as many birds that I have seen up close, never seen one with a bite mark like this in it (which wasn’t a bad one, but worth blogging)! But, I have heard they have been bitten worse.
    @ Susan – so glad your on the raptor’s side!! Great info and would love to see that tooth over and over again.
    @ Nature Woman – Probably a good percentage of the time they are able to kill it quickly but not always. Bluejays were not happy and dive bombing the poor bird (probably wanting some food also)! I get dead things in the office all the time due to the salvage permits that we have.

    8 February 2007 at 7:23 am

  5. Tom,

    Cool article – I’ve seen the red-tailed hawk that hunts our yard (we get all three of the ‘yard hawks’ at different times) take down a pigeon in a burst of feathers, but lose it when it landed in the road and had to leave because of cars before it could really kill the flying rat. So, I understand about the need for the quick kill.

    As for the blue jays, they really don’t have anything to fear. They’re too small and far too agile for the hawk to catch (you would never see them doing that near a Cooper’s Hawk). And they are pretty big for their britches, just like mockingbirds who are similarly fearless.

    Your shot of the feet of that (unfortunately) dead red-tail is fantastic; the beaded water and details on the toes & talons is exquisite.

    8 February 2007 at 8:49 am

  6. Mon@rch – I sat here at my desk in amazement… After witnessing the dove slain two days ago, I’m glad to learn it’s usually an instant kill. And I am shocked to see those jays watching… Another great lesson here and don’t apologize for the photos. They’re very good!

    8 February 2007 at 8:49 am

  7. Excellent photos of the redtail in action. We see them all the time in our neighborhood, but it’s definitely the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s that hunt our yard. We’ve noticed a change in their behavior lately. The Cooper’s often sat on top of the feeder every few days. He would fly to one tree, then another. We always could watch what he was up to. Lately, there have been no hawks on the feeder, but one sits somewhere on the north side of our house, and flies in really low and fast. He surprises the birds now while they are still gathered and eating. I’ve been thinking that the one that sat on the feeder last year was a juvenile just learning to hunt. This year, his methods are much more lethal.

    8 February 2007 at 11:18 am

  8. @ Marty Thanks and love hearing about your birds in the yard! Have you seen Allezany’s most recent picture on flickr? Her husband got a shot of a coopers with bluejay feathers all over the place! BWT: I did have a better shot of its feet and realized today that I uploaded the wrong shot! Hmm, should I change it?
    @ Mary – That is a great lesson but guess that’s why I am a student! Only wish I could have captured something better (or should I say, I should have gone outside for the better shot)!! Lets hope your Dove went very quickly but that isn’t an easy thing to watch!
    @ Robin – You never know and maybe they did learn better how to hunt! Those that surprise the birds always have better luck! Thanks for telling us about your hawks at your feeder!

    8 February 2007 at 8:00 pm

  9. Bumblefoot?

    8 February 2007 at 10:58 pm

  10. Christine

    Today I saw a hawk fly after and “chase” the same crow repeatedly, for about a few minutes. From tree to tree the hawk pursued this crow which was as big as a chicken. The crows are huge here. Then the crow landed on a telephone line and the hawk right beside it, landed a few feet away, and that is where the pursuit ended. What was that all about? Also, I have a Welsh Corgi dog. He is very small, but larger than a rabbit. Should I be concerned that a hawk or eagle would try to attack my dog?

    19 October 2007 at 10:44 am

  11. Donna

    I was thinking that no way could a hawk get my parent’s chihuahua. In November my Dad told me he had a hawk in his yard. He said over Thanksgiving that the hawk actually flew down to try and get the dog but my Dad flapped his arms and it flew away. Well, yesterday Dad turned Lucy out. She was only out for a moment and when he went back to the door she was not there anxiously waiting to come in. He rang the outside bell and she ran into the house and under their bed. When he retrieved her she was terrified. Long story short, she had an open wound on top of her head and three puncture wound on either side of her abdomen. She barely weighs 5 pounds. We thought perhaps he pecked her and realized he could not pick her up. Now after the vet visit, we are convinced due to her injuries that she was actually dropped some distance. We are very fortunate that she is alive, however she is definitely not the same. So, beware!

    3 January 2008 at 8:59 pm

  12. Lee Ann Soowal

    I have a question. Two rather large hawks (possibly red tails) have moved into my yard perching on low branches at dawn and dusk. This also happens to be the time I let my 3 Shih Tzus out in that small yard. Is it at all possible that Hawks would consider small dogs as prey.? I love the birds and have stopped using the backyard… but I miss just opening the door and letting them out. What do you think?

    28 January 2008 at 6:43 pm

  13. These birds are very opportunistic and if you give them an opportunity . . . they could give it a try! Then again it really depends on the hawk species and my suggestion is just be careful when you let your dog out. Being outside with your dog would be enough to discourage the hawk if it did show any interest.

    28 January 2008 at 8:24 pm

  14. mikeprism

    If have a Red-Tail Hawk and a Cooper’s Hawk that often feed on the Rock Pigeons at my backyard feeders. How often do Hawks usually feed? Three to four times per week? Any info?

    17 February 2008 at 10:29 am

  15. I have seen birds that obviously have a full crop (just eaten) go after food! Many of these birds, depending on the size of there food will eat something each day! Bigger meals will give them the ability to not eat for a day but if you feed on mice and don’t get enough! You will be out again the next day looking for food! But, if bad weather moves in . . they do have the ability to hold back for a day if they are not able to find any food (due to weather)! My guess . . if they are easily finding pigeons in your yard . . . they will keep coming back each day!

    17 February 2008 at 7:19 pm

  16. paula craig

    Today a red tailed hawk perched in our yard on a 6 foot fence. (I didn’t know they would perch this low to the ground). Then it flew to a tree where it was attacked by 2 blue jays until it flew away. Can someone tell me more about this behavior?

    27 April 2008 at 9:27 pm

  17. The smaller birds chase the larger birds or nag them long enough to get them to fly away. Many of these birds find food by surprise and when birds nagging you . . . the surprise is gone!

    27 April 2008 at 9:43 pm

  18. Kevin Lester

    I’ve just finished reading a great deal of redtail hawks. Their survival rate of only 5% at 5 years and 48% at 2 years. Most die from electrocution but many die young due to starvation…like having injured talons due to squirrel bites or being poor hunters. I suppose we are fortunate that so many are born. They are majestic.

    24 January 2011 at 11:59 pm

  19. dave slear

    How do raptors land on a branch with prey in their talons?

    30 March 2011 at 6:39 pm

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