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OUTDOOR WORLD: On the trail of the red tail hawk

Red tail hawks are very popular in Nova Scotia and can often be seen flying the skies.
Red tail hawks are very popular in Nova Scotia and can often be seen flying the skies. - Contributed

I like to keep an eye out for wildlife while I am driving and lately I’ve been seeing a lot of activity. 

A few days before Christmas I counted 20 deer while driving from New Glasgow to Antigonish so the deer herd looks like it is in pretty good shape heading into the winter. 

I’ve also been seeing a lot of red tail hawks. Every time I drive from Pictou to New Glasgow I see two or three perched in trees or on power poles along the road. 

The red tail hawk is our most common hawk in Nova Scotia and it is a pretty impressive bird. They range from 50-60 cm in length with a wingspan of around a metre. Adult birds weigh up to 1.5 kg, with female birds being up to 25 per cent larger than males, and can be recognized by the rusty red tails. Red tails can be found throughout the province and they range from across Canada down through the United States to Central America and the Caribbean.

Generally, younger red tails migrate south in the fall to areas where there is less snow so hunting will be easier. Older adult birds remain, however, and are often joined by other red tail hawks which migrate here from farther north. During the spring, summer and fall, red tails prefer hunting over old fields and open areas where they can target their favourite prey, rodents such as mice, voles and squirrels. These open areas allow the red tails to use their favourite hunting methods of soaring in wide circles over the land, or perching in trees along the edge. Red tails have a varied diet which allows them to eat other items if rodents are scarce. Prey includes snakes, frogs and small birds. During the winter, larger hawks may also target snowshoe hares and ruffed grouse.

When I was growing up red tails were called chicken hawks, and the sight of one in the area would require gathering up the hens and shutting them in the chicken coop. Their ability as hunters, along with the fact that they are fairly numerous throughout their range and are easily trained, have made red tail hawks the preferred bird for use in falconry. 

Red tails mate for life and their nests are usually located in hardwood trees. The nests are fairly large and are built of sticks and branches which they line with grass and leaves. The same nest is used every year, unless it is taken over by great horned owls, which have a preference for using their nests. If that happens, the hawks simply build a new one. Females lay up to four eggs which they incubate for about a month, with the young hatching in May. The adults share in feeding the young for a month and a half before they can begin feeding on their own.

Red tails are a beautiful bird and it is a real treat to see them. I hope you spot one this winter.

Don MacLean is an outdoor writer and biologist who lives in Pictou County.
©2019 Don MacLean

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