“Northern” Red-tailed Hawks — Why so Few?

You may enlarge any image in this blog by clicking on it. Click again for a detailed view.

I’ve said in recent posts that I’ve been seeing substantial numbers of Red-tailed Hawks recently. So many, in fact, that I’ve come to take these birds a bit for granted. My expectation is that I’ll see a couple dozen of them or more every time I make a drive to look for wildlife.

I assumed that I’d be seeing and photographing a lot of Red Tails on our recent trip from our Tucson home through Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming to Yellowstone National Park, in northwestern Wyoming. I was wrong. I saw almost none of these birds during days of driving across vast stretches of open land. I photographed only two Red Tails in two weeks of travel. I captured an image of one hawk on a rainy morning in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area at the junction of northeastern Utah and southeastern Wyoming.

A few days later I made this image of a second hawk perching atop a tall conifer in Yellowstone.

Much of the country that we drove through appeared to be ideal terrain for Red-tailed Hawks: open prairie with high points consisting of scattered trees and the occasional utility pole. Where were all of the hawks on this long road trip (over 3000 miles of total driving — more than 4800 kilometers)?

The answer became apparent on reflection.

First, some open country is better Red Tail habitat than other open country. It’s true that Red Tails like prairies, but they are attracted especially to open country that features a ready supply of small rodents, their principal prey. That’s a feature of heavily cultivated farmlands. Cultivated fields attract rodents. It’s not necessarily true of open range.

Second, our western plains are almost indescribably vast. Even a decent number of Red Tails would appear to be extremely sparse when distributed over the millions of square miles of plains in the western United States.

Third, in late September and early October, when we made our trip, many Red Tails had migrated from their summer residences on our northwestern plains to winter ranges — including southern Arizona. Many of the hawks that I encounter here during the winter are hawks that I might see in the summer months in places like Wyoming’s plains.

Finally, southern Arizona’s farmlands are absolutely ideal habitat for Red-tailed Hawks. In winter they combine all of the features that make for a desirable environment for Red Tails: open plains, warm weather, and lots and lots of rodents. The perfect habitat argues for a much greater concentration of Red Tails than one is likely to see elsewhere.

Images made with a Canon R5, Canon EF 400mm f4 DO II lens+Canon EF 1.4 x telextender, M setting (auto ISO). First image, ISO 1250, f5.6 @ 1/640, +2 stops exposure compensation. Second image, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/1250, +1 2/3 stops exposure compensation.

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