Winter Birds: the Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks and eagles are valuable, exciting elements in the winter landscapes of Central New York. Whether perching high in a roadside tree, soaring among the clouds, or evading a mob of crows, red-tails are the species of hawk that is most visible and widely known.

The red-tail’s soaring habit; large, broad wings; rufous tail and dark, broken band across the stomach take much of the guesswork out of identification, even at long distances.

 

Red-tailed hawks thrive in agricultural areas where the large, deciduous trees in farm woodlots provide nest sites and nearby fields and fence rows provide habitat for small mammals like mice, voles and cottontails – their dietary staple. However, this food source can be scarce and unreliable, especially when winters are long and deep snow cover persists. Red-tails, eagles and other predators have adapted to such scarcity by being opportunistic and scavenging on carrion. Here, that generally means road-killed deer.

As a rule, it is unethical to disturb a raptor when it’s feeding, for fear that it will lose precious energy when escaping and abandoning its food. This red-tail was the exception. It was feeding on a deer carcass in a farm field, not far from a residence, and was more or less oblivious to the presence of a solitary human. There were no signs of poisoning or bodily injury and the bird eventually flew to roost. The consensus among viewers for this highly unusual behavior was simply “old age” (?).

I slowly and cautiously worked my way around the bird, shooting all the while. I hoped to capture feeding behavior in detail, without pushing the hawk off the carcass. One behavior in particular caught my attention. Initially, it turned its back to me, hunched over the carcass and covered it with wings and tail. This was classic “mantling” behavior, a strategy to conceal and guard food from other predators that might attempt to steal it. In this case, I was the threat.

Mantling behavior by a Red-tailed Hawk while feeding on a deer carcass

The final images illustrate the challenge of ripping frozen meat from carrion!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.