The Red-Tailed Hawk

Spotted on the Hill

The red-tailed hawk. Photo: Peter Vankevich

Now that it is fall, Capitol Hill denizens can look forward to seeing the annual raptor invasion when hawks take up residency for the next several months. You may see them gliding and soaring in the air or perched in trees and on the large buildings of the Capitol complex and Smithsonian Institute.

One species you will no doubt see is the large Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), hereafter we’ll call them Red-tails. As you can deduce from its name, they are identified by a uniform reddish to pink tail. Note however, depending on lighting conditions, the tail may sometimes temporarily appear very pale or even whitish.

 Red-tails are the most common hawk in North America with an estimation of about two million individuals. Their range is throughout North America where there are open areas interspersed with woods. As winter approaches, many of the farnorthern birds will migrate south to areas such as the DC region which has suitable habitat. This movement is based on weather conditions, food supply and amount of snow on the ground. Many individuals, nevertheless, are hardy birds. When I’m on one of my many road trips from Maine to DC in the winter, I always see several perched along 95 or near the Amtrak rail line in trees or soaring in the air. Red-tails are primarily a sit-and-wait hunter which explains why you may see them in a tree or on a building. Their main source of food consists of small mammals, birds, snakes and large insects.

Red-tails have a distinctive loud and long call that can be described as keee-errr. It is a sound that you may expect in a prehistoric or science fiction movie. Be aware that Blue Jays can do a decent imitation.

Their aerial courtship performed by both the male and female can be spectacular. One reported description of a matched-up pair in 1937 is as follows: they soared in great circles, crossing and recrossing each other's paths, sometimes almost touching, and mounting higher and higher until almost out of sight; finally one partially closed its wings and made a thrilling dive from a dizzy height, checking its speed just before it reached the wood.

 Red-tails have on rare occasion selected artificial structures such as buildings on which to nest. Several years ago, Wall Street Journal nature columnist Marie Winn wrote a best seller called “Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park” (Pantheon Books). The book chronicled the lives of two hawks that took up residence on a high rise ledge near Central Park. In the spring of 2009, Red-tails started a nest on the Rayburn House Office Building just above the entrance on Independence Ave, SE. I became aware of it in late April, but was never able to confirm whether they had offspring. You may still be able to see the remnants, some protruding sticks still there.

Interesting Visitor. On September 11, 2012 a Barred Owl showed up in the 600 block of South Carolina Ave. SE and was also seen the following day. The bird was observed by Ed & Margaret Missiaen. Ed took some great photos of it. Barred Owls prefer riparian (i.e. river) habitats and can be seen along the CO Canal. Perching on a tree on Capitol Hill even for a brief period is quite extraordinary.

Feel free to send me any comments regarding birds on Capitol Hill, petevankevich@gmail.com.