Recently while I was standing in the yard of my home, I spotted a red-tailed hawk gliding across my front yard. A northern mockingbird trailed the hunter. As I stood motionless, the hawk slowly descended before finally flaring its rusty-colored tail and landing out of sight just beyond the trunk of a water oak tree. Apparently, the red-tail missed its target as it immediately rose up without anything dangling from its talons and flew toward the back of my yard. As I stood spellbound watching the wild drama play out, the aerial hunter disappeared from sight, with the mockingbird still trailing close behind.
Whenever a hawk appears in our yards, we often assume it is a threat to the birds using our feeders. If such is the case, is this assumption correct?
While I did not see what the red-tail I was trying to catch, the evidence suggests, in this case, it was a mammal and not a bird. I never did see a bird fly away. However, eastern chipmunks and gray squirrels are regularly seen around the tree. If the hawk was pursuing a chipmunk, the small mammal could have escaped into a burrow. Whereas, a gray squirrel could have sought refuge climbing up the trunk of the tree.
Studies of the red-tailed hawk’s food habits suggest that I could be right. When biologists evaluated the results of 27 food habit studies conducted on red-tailed hawks in North America, they found mammals made up the bulk (65.3%) of the 500 prey species that showed up in the diets of the birds examined. Birds were the second most important food item. A little more than 20% of the predator’s diet consisted of birds.
Rodents and rabbits proved to be the mammals most often eaten. Rabbits and hares proved to be the most important mammals in the diet. However, gray and fox squirrels, chipmunks, ground squirrels, and rodents such as voles, mice were eaten too.
The list of other animals consumed included reptiles, invertebrates, amphibians, and fish.
Although some 200 species of birds were recorded in the 27 surveys, the species most often taken by red-tails were pigeons, doves, European starlings, and woodpeckers. The woodpecker most frequently captured by this hawk was the flicker.
Based on these findings the argument could be made that the red-tailed hawk is not a significant threat to the birds that commonly dine at our backyard bird cafes.