Let’s talk about the most common year-round hawk in Central Oregon, the red-tailed hawk. Its scientific name is Buteo jamaicensis. Buteo, Latin for hawk and jamaicensis for of Jamaica. Unfortunately it is often colloquially known as the chicken hawk, though it rarely preys on chickens.
For most nonbirders, this is one bird they may recognize. It is omnipresent in many ecosystems. It ranges throughout North America, including Caribbean Islands and well into southern Mexico. Red-tails are the ubiquitous hawk in Central Oregon and a widespread resident breeder. Northern breeding red-tails will winter in the continental U.S. This leads to high winter concentrations in such areas as the agricultural fields around Redmond, Madras, Fort Rock, Christmas Valley and east of Bend. Hundreds also winter in the Klamath Falls area. In early spring the birds will disperse back to their breeding grounds. The residents start pairing up in midwinter and will often be seen perched nearby each other.
One must wonder where red-tails perched before there were power poles. Red-tails are perch hunters, and it sometimes seems that pole after pole has a red-tail scanning open fields for prey.
They mainly hunt small mammals but will also take reptiles and birds.
The plumage on this hawk is extremely variable. There are even subspecies that do not have red tails. The Western subspecies of this bird is caluras, which is derived from a Greek word for beautiful tailed, and is the most variable in plumage of all the subspecies. The Western subspecies does have a gorgeous red tail. Juveniles have a dark-barred tail and do not get a red tail until their second year. No matter what the plumage, it is a big, stocky, broad-chested bird. It has a wingspan of 48 to 52 inches and a length of 18 to 25 inches. Weight varies from 2 to 3-plus pounds. As with all birds of prey the female is larger than the male. Overall this is a brownish bird. A typical Western red-tailed has a visible dark leading edge on the wings extending from the body about half the wing length. The front of the body is whiteish with a dark band across the belly often referred to as the belly band. This band is highly variable and is sometimes not that visible in other color morphs of the bird. Another identifying characteristic is a white V running on the back from the shoulders toward the tail. No matter how the red-tail looks, it has an unmistakable “krreeeeerrr” call.
Look for this beautiful hawk year-round.
— Tom Lawler is an avid bird watcher and photographer. He serves on the East Cascades Audubon Society board and leads bird walks at the Sunriver Nature Center.