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FIELD GUIDE

Hear that cry? It could be a red-tailed hawk

A juvenile red-tailed hawk glided over the Merrimack River in Lawrence about an hour after sunrise on a calm morning in January.
A juvenile red-tailed hawk glided over the Merrimack River in Lawrence about an hour after sunrise on a calm morning in January.Craig Gibson

Coming off an exit ramp from Interstate 93 in a heavily trafficked area of Woburn in mid-March, I saw an unexpected early sign of spring — a large nest about 3 feet wide made of sticks, about 30 feet up in a tree on the median strip.

Poking its head above the edge of the nest was a red-tailed hawk. I was surprised to see a big bird of prey nesting so close to the highway, especially in such a busy area.

“I can recall several red-tail nests that were visible from a highway, especially along the Mass. Pike,” said Wayne Petersen, Mass Audubon’s director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas program. “Red-tails have really adapted themselves to the presence of people, including people in passing automobiles.”

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Named for their short, broad, reddish-brown tails, these robust raptors have a wingspan of up to 52 inches, a body length that can reach 22 inches, and they can weigh from 1.5 to more than 3 pounds, according to Petersen. Red-tailed hawks are the largest and one of the most common species of hawks in Massachusetts.

“Cooper’s hawks are common too,” said Petersen, “but they’re more secretive, so you don’t see them as often as red-tails.”

In fact, red-tails are probably the most common hawk in North America, according to Cornell University’s website “All About Birds.” They occur in Alaska, across much of Canada, from coast to coast in the continental United States, and southward into parts of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean.

Red-tails are also one of the largest hawks in North America. Ferruginous hawks, a western species, are bigger, with a 56-inch wingspan, and an average body length of 23 inches, said Petersen.

Interestingly, we have more red-tails in Massachusetts in winter because our local year-round resident populations are augmented by migrants from eastern Canada and northern New England, Petersen noted.

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Red-tailed hawks like to hang out in open areas, often near highways and other roads, so they’re pretty conspicuous. Petersen explained red-tails frequent areas like roadsides because the hawks feed primarily on small mammals including voles, mice, and rabbits that live in the grassy habitat and along forest edges that are often found adjacent to roads. Buteos — the group of hawks that red-tails belong to — tend to hunt from a perch, so trees or other roadside perches like telephone poles are used for lookouts from which the hawks can scan the ground for potential prey.

But this habitat preference can have a downside.

“They get hit by cars,” said Petersen. “When a hawk coasts across a road to catch prey it could easily get hit.”

Petersen recounted a story about when he was driving down the Southeast Expressway and found a dead red-tail and a dead baby rabbit about 20 feet away from the hawk. It was pretty easy to figure out what had happened, he said.

Getting hit by cars isn’t the only threat to hawks.

“Rodenticides [poisons used to kill rats and mice] can kill red-tails and other raptors,” said Petersen. “Tufts wildlife clinic [at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center] autopsies dead raptors, and a lot of them are loaded with rodenticides.”

Red-tailed hawks like to nest in tall trees like white pines, beech trees, and oaks near the edges of mature forests, according to the Mass Audubon Web page on red-tailed hawks. Their nests are up to 2.5 to 3 feet in diameter, and are made of sticks, twigs, and green foliage.

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Nests tend to be used for years, according to Mass Audubon, but red-tails aren’t the only ones using them.

“Great horned owls don’t build their own nests,” said Petersen. “They use red-tail nests.”

Great horned owls breed earlier than red-tails, so if the hawks show up at last year’s nest and find a pair of owls in it, the red-tails will have no choice but to build another nest, Petersen said.

“There’s not much that can evict a great horned owl,” said Petersen. “They’re close to the top avian predator in Massachusetts.”

But red-tails have also started to take advantage of some new nesting options.

“The current landscape has favored red-tails in a big way,” said Petersen. “They are habitat generalists, so they may benefit through suburban sprawl and habitat modification. They like broken habitat with big trees for nesting, and open fields to hunt. And they’re increasingly moving into urban areas as well.”

In recent years red-tailed hawks have nested in places like the Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge and Watertown, and on an office building on the Alewife Brook Parkway in Cambridge, said Petersen. Another red-tailed hawk couple decided to build a nest on the Boston University School of Law building several years ago, but biologists from MassWildlife were called in to relocate the nest.

But the prize for the most creative nest location has to go to a pair of red-tails that built a nest on an overhang near the press booth above home plate in Fenway Park in 2008. Unfortunately, one of the hawks attacked a 13-year-old girl from Connecticut who was taking a tour of Fenway Park with her middle school class. The girl recovered from a minor wound to her scalp, but the hawks were subsequently evicted.

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Red-tailed hawks typically begin setting up their breeding territories in March, said Petersen. They commonly lay two eggs, which take about a month to hatch. The females, which tend to be bigger than males, do most of the incubating, and are fed by the males during the incubation period. Once the eggs hatch, both sexes feed the offspring.

The young fledge in about 45 days, but they don’t develop their namesake red-colored tail until the following autumn, said Petersen.

Red-tails typically mate for life, and can live up to about 20 years in the wild, said Petersen. The oldest known wild red-tailed hawk was from Michigan. It had a bird band that showed it was at least 30 years and 8 months old when it was found in 2011, according to Cornell University’s website.

Even if you’ve never seen a red-tailed hawk, chances are you’ve heard one. Red-tails have enjoyed a long career in Hollywood as avian voice-over artists.

“The red-tailed hawk has a thrilling, raspy scream that sounds exactly like a raptor should sound,” said the Cornell website. “At least, that’s what Hollywood directors seem to think. Whenever a hawk or eagle appears onscreen, no matter what species, the shrill cry on the soundtrack is almost always a red-tailed hawk.”

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And if those Hollywood directors ever need a stand-in for a red-tail, they can call a blue jay.

“Blue jays can imitate the call of red-shouldered, broad-winged, and red-tailed hawks,” said Petersen.

And why would a blue jay imitate a hawk?

“They do it near bird feeders,” said Petersen, “perhaps to scare off other birds at the feeder.”

Who knew?

Don Lyman is a biologist, freelance science journalist, and hospital pharmacist who lives north of Boston. Send your questions about nature and wildlife in the suburbs to donlymannature@gmail.com.