Red-tailed Hawk: Soaring, Screaming, Nesting

It was a very good February sighting: I recently watched as a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared together over Eliza Howell Park. It reminded me that nesting season is getting close.

Red-tailed Hawk pairs usually stay together for years and nest in the same territory, sometimes in the same nest. So this soaring duo is probably the same pair that has nested in the park in the last few years. I haven’t named them (as some New Yorkers have named the hawks of Central Park), but maybe that would be a good idea.

These large hawks (wingspan = about 50 inches) are year-round residents and are most commonly seen soaring.


Photo by Margaret Weber

Red-tailed Hawks nest early; March is the time to look for the nest. While the first sign of a breeding pair in the area is their soaring together, it is the bird’s cry that helps me locate the nest. Red-tails are territorial and patrol their territory looking for intruders. When they see something in their nesting territory, they give their shrill cry, appropriately described, I think, as a scream. When I get screamed at every time I walk through a particular section of the park, I know I am pretty close to the nest.

American movie makers must have decided long ago that the Red-tailed Hawk cry is just what a raptor should sound like because they have almost always used their scream whenever they show any flying eagle or hawk, of whatever species.

Red-tails build their nests in trees, using branches and twigs, usually 40 feet high or higher. This is their EHP nest a few years ago, built in the woods over a vernal pond.


          Photo by Margaret Weber

Red-tailed Hawks soar frequently, but they do most of their hunting from a perch, from which they will fly down to grab prey on the ground. They eat mostly rodents and other small mammals, though they will sometimes eat birds and insects. These are the hawks that are often seen in the winter perched on trees and poles along interstate highways, probably searching for small animals in the ditches along the road.

Red tail hawk

          Photo by Margaret Weber

When the perched Red-tail is seen from the front, the red tail is not visible. The best identifying marks are the dark splotches across the belly. When seen soaring, another characteristic feature is the dark bar on each wing near the shoulder (see first picture above). The reddish tail is often evident on the flying bird, especially when the top of the tail is visible.


          Photo by Margaret Weber

It is great to see that the/a pair of Red-tailed Hawks is again likely to nest in the park this year. In the next few weeks, I will watch for the soaring pair and will listen for the territorial screaming at me. While I will look for the nest, I will try not to get too close. I don’t want them to see me as a threatening intruder.

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