Birds of a Feather

As the leaves begin to fall from the trees at the Rye Nature Center, many large birds become very active. When outside with our classes we have noticed multiple red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) that are extremely lively in the brisk autumn air. You can identify these large birds of prey by their orange to red tail feathers and high pitch call, which sounds almost like a siren.

A red-tailed hawk mantling its prey.

A red-tailed hawk mantling its prey.

When we spot these hawks, they are perched on limbs. Their eyes focus on the scurrying movement below, as squirrels and chipmunks are gathering food for their winter caches. These distracted rodents are an easy catch, and the red-tailed hawks will dive down into the forest to snatch the smaller animals with their powerful talons. Once their prey is caught, most hawks, including the red-tailed, practice what is known as mantling. This involves the bird spreading out its wings and covering its prey, hiding it from the eyes of other animals or larger predators that may want to steal their catch.

If you happen to see Buteo jamaicensis mantling and eating its prey, be sure to watch from a distance. While mantling, the red-tailed hawk will turn its head down to eat. This position makes them vulnerable and very skittish. A bird of prey that is startled in this state will often abandon its prey, and they used precious energy to catch it!

I hope you will keep your eyes out for these beautiful birds next time you are at the Nature Center.

-AJ Johnson, Associate Director of Outreach and Volunteers