Species Spotlight: Red-tailed Hawks, the Mel Blanc of Birds (Sort Of)

Red-tailed Hawk in flight                                                                                                                                    photo credit: Tom Haines

Red-tailed Hawk in flight                                                                                                                                   photo credit: Tom Haines

I don’t know if you know this, but sometimes TV and movies stretch the boundaries of reality and things are not always what they seem. For instance, if I had not paid close attention in actual real-life-nature-time, I would still think that because of Looney Tunes (and also every western movie ever), I could be out in the desert and have a kettle of vultures circling me overhead, screeching their resonant “keee-aaaaw”, while they wait for me to slowly die of thirst.

Or, I could hear that very same sound coming from a majestic soaring eagle like in the beginning of every episode of The Colbert Report.

Neither of these birds make that piercing shriek we’ve all come to recognize– instead it’s the cry of the poor Red-tailed Hawk, doing all of the screeching and getting none of the credit. I jokingly refer to them as the “Mel Blanc of birds” because their calls are heard everywhere in television and film. Once you start paying attention to this you’ll see what I mean.

Those of us who tend to nerd out on bird stuff may find it difficult to continue to suspend their disbelief when watching television and hearing a vulture cry overhead like a hawk (I’m looking at you Netflix’s Ozark). I suppose that is our cross to bear, and we can attempt to cope by giving anyone we’re watching anything with a little elbow nudge and a mini-lecture.

Of course, the Red-tailed hawk can’t help that it’s call is so awesome that it has become a part of the Foley sound archives, and we can’t help but love them! This is why this beloved, beefy bird is our next Species Spotlight!

Self-explanatory hawk shot                                                                                                                                      p hoto credit: WRSPA

Self-explanatory hawk shot                                                                                                                                      photo credit: WRSPA

RED-TAILED HAWK: Buteo jamaicensis

Because of their ability to find food in a variety of climates, we are fortunate in Pennsylvania, and all over the United States for that matter, to be graced with the presence of the Red-tailed Hawk. They really are quite abundant and most times when you spy a hawk in flight it is likely a Red-tail. To illustrate, I've prepared a handy flowchart for hawk identification:

A very academic flowchart for hawk identification

A very academic flowchart for hawk identification

All kidding aside, Red-tails are pretty easy to spot. Because their preferred habitat is deciduous woods (made up of trees that lose their leaves each season), fall and winter is a great time to watch for these birds as they sit in the bare trees waiting to spot their next rodent meal. Funnily enough, the place I personally see the most hawks is on the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and similar highway stretches. It’s almost like a game to see how many I can spot in the trees (when in the passenger seat, of course). 

Why they're so cool

Well, first of all, they’re raptors and there’s likely little argument that birds of prey are just pretty awesome. From head to toe these birds have amazing adaptations to help them survive and thrive:


Of course you’ve heard the idiom “watch like a hawk”– it’s no coincidence, the keen eyesight of a hawk is one of its most useful features. Unlike our vulture friends, Red-tails (and much of the bird world) have little to no sense of smell, so being able to spot prey is paramount. The location of their eyes on their face provides them with a greater field of view and they are capable of both binocular and monocular vision, which means they can focus on an object with one eye or both. That, combined with 20/5 vision (meaning that they can see with clarity from 20 feet away what the average human can see from 5 feet away), means that the chipmunk spotted by a hungry Red-tail had better watch out!. They can also see a much richer color field than that of humans.

Fun fact for the dinner table:
Red-tails (and all other birds) have a third eyelid called the nictitating membrane. They use this primarily for blinking and for cleaning and protecting their eyes, their “regular” eyelids they use for sleeping.


With a few exceptions (hey there, Peregrine!), most raptors are killing their prey with their feet, which are made up of heavily padded toes and large talons powered by strong leg muscles. For most of us, we are experiencing Red-tails and other raptors from afar, either soaring in the sky or perching in nature. Rarely does the average person get an up-close look at the wonderful feet that raptors have, and for good reason–the feet are the “danger zone” when handling these kind of birds and you definitely don’t want one going after your hand or arm like it was a prey animal!

Fun fact for the dinner table:

Most of the “leg” that you see in birds is actually their foot. That thing that looks like a backwards knee? That’s their “ankle”.

You're being watched like a (Red-tailed) Hawk                                                                                                        photo credit: WRSPA

You're being watched like a (Red-tailed) Hawk                                                                                                       photo credit: WRSPA


Rehabilitators in Pennsylvania must have a special license to care for raptors. It’s not uncommon for orphaned but otherwise healthy birds to be admitted each breeding season and, in these cases, the birds are given the proper food and shelter until they can manage on their own in the wild.

I made this puppet out of an old dish towel. Thankfully, baby Red-tails don't have a keen eye for craftsmanship.                 photo credit: WRSPA

I made this puppet out of an old dish towel. Thankfully, baby Red-tails don't have a keen eye for craftsmanship.                photo credit: WRSPA

Even though that little ball of fluff looks so cute, special care is given to prevent baby raptors from imprinting on humans when they are brought in very young. Like the picture above shows, many rehabbers employ a combination of hand-puppets, gloves, and masks to keep the association between food and humans to a minimum. Some rehabilitation centers that are permitted to keep unreleasable animals for education purposes will also use them as surrogates, which is the most favorable way to care for them. A baby Red-tail can be housed with an adult of the same species until they are ready to be released...three cheers for free babysitting (and for keeping wild animals wild)!

Sadly, many other raptors are admitted for human-caused injuries such as vehicle collisions, entanglement, contact with glue traps, and poisoning. Because our beloved Red-tailed hawks feed primarily on mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals, they are particularly susceptible to secondary poisoning. This means that they are ingesting the poison that exists in the mouse or rat that they caught for lunch. Even when a hawk is admitted because of a vehicle collision or animal attack, poisoning could be the underlying cause since the effects of many rodenticides weaken and keep the animal from defending itself properly.

If you’d like to learn more about Red-tailed hawks in general, or if you are interested in wildlife-friendly ways to control pests, please check out the links in our resources section below!


And, as always, you can Help Us Help Wildlife by donating!







For info on the Red-tail's place in the Foley soundscape: http://soundandthefoley.com/2013/05/08/hunting-time-red-tailed-hawk/

For information on poisons: