Friday, September 15, 2006

Red-tails eat what?

Photo: Steve Wayne Rotsch
Gray foxes are about 3 1/2 feet long and are the only North American canid that climbs trees. They have been sighted in squirrel's nests and abandoned hawk's nests up to 60 feet above the ground.

More from John Blakeman on tough skinned Woodchucks, and other unusual Red-tail menu choices.


Ron Austing, with whom I've spent some time with in the field, related to red-tails way back in the 1960s, indeed states that woodchucks are taken by red-tails. I need to clarify this.

There is no doubt that, from time to time, a red-tail will kill a woodchuck. But it's very infrequent, for the reasons I mentioned, particularly the extremely tough hide on a woodchuck.

I have actually tried to feed dispatched woodchucks to my red-tails, and they just have great difficulty tearing into the carcass. Their talons can sometimes pierce the tough skin, but when they grab the skin with their bill and try to tear it open to reveal the flesh, the skin just fails to tear.

I recall trying to feed a fresh woodchuck to a very hungry (but fully healthy) red-tail. The bird tried for five or ten minutes to get into the flesh. Finally, in frustration it jumped off the animal and sat on its nearby perch and expressed a scowling look for the rest of the day. It was not pleased that I presented it with an animal that it couldn't consume, try as it might to get to the flesh.

Later, I removed the woodchuck and sliced open the skin with a sharp knife. The hawk then went to town on the flesh and was delighted. (I had to clean up the resulting mess, as woodchucks have long intestines, and the hawk flicked aside the intestines and their contents in a scattered fecal mess.)

So, I still contend that red-tails are not prominent takers of woodchucks (groundhogs). Farmers here in Ohio hate these big rodents, as a pair with a burrow on the edge of productive soybean field can consume almost every soybean plant in an acre in a week or so in June. But no Ohio farmer ever recalls any local red-tail powering across a flat soybean field to capture a grazing woodchuck. If it happens, it's infrequent and of no consequence.

A few half-grown, newly-emerging woodchucks may be taken by red-tails, but they, too, have tough skin, and after a single, un-rewarded encounter, a red-tail will seldom waste her efforts on another one.

This is not to imply, however, that red-tails can't or won't take larger prey. I have a thoroughly authenticated account of an adult red-tail that descended on a sleeping gray fox and instantly sank its talons through the eye sockets into the cranial cavity, killing the large fox before it could defend itself.

This was in an area with plenty of voles. But this old bird saw the fox curled up in some low grasses and it figured out how to grab and kill it before it awakened. She may have been tired of vole flesh and wanted something new for lunch.

So, no, red-tails don't eat only voles. And they can take an occasional woodchuck. But these are infrequent, inconsequential events.

--John Blakeman

(Pale Male has been known to make unusual choices in food fare as well. One damp chill day while Lola sat the eggs, he appeared above Fifth Avenue carrying a very heavy "something", labored to the nest, and presented her with half of a very large gull, complete with the long white signature wing. D.B.)

Speaking of Red-tail Prey

Prairie Vole

One of my daughter's friends, born and bred in NYC, asked the other day, "Just what does a Vole look like?"

Well, a bit like a chunky mouse that's lost part of its tail.

Voles are a country Red-tail favorite and depending on the subspecies, usually range in size from 6 to 12cm. A female Prairie Vole like the one above often weighs a touch under 2 ounces. Meaning that if a Red-tailed Hawk wanted to while away part of the day surveying his territory with a bulging crop like Pale Male does, he'd have to hunt and eat quite a number of them in short order.

And as surmised, young Woodchucks are tasty.

Thank you to D. Bruce Yolton of for this follow-up to John Blakeman's and my discussion concerning Woodchucks as prey for Red-tails.

G. Ronald Austing does list young Woodchucks as Red-tailed Hawk Prey
in his book.

(G. Ronald Austing is an admired bird photographer and the author of The World Of The Red-tail Hawk. D.B.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Blakeman on Woodchucks as prey for Red-tails

Immature Pennsylvania Red-tail

Pennsylvania Woodchuck eats a green apple without much fear of a hawk circling above.

John Blakeman responds to my thought that a very young Groundhog might make a tasty Red-tail brunch.


No, even young woodchucks (groundhogs) are seldom taken by red-tails. That's because they have exceptionally tough skin, which was used for shoe laces at one time. A red-tail can sometimes grab a fleeing young woodchuck, but it can't sink its talons into any vital organ. Only larger eagles can pierce groundhog skin with any effectiveness.

--John Blakeman

So as opposed to my previous thought, young Groundhog might, if actually punctured, turn out to be a tough yet tasty brunch. And here I thought it was squirrels who had the difficult skin.
It isn't easy being an RT.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Country Red-tail Update

York County, PA juvenile begs from a favorite perch, August 23, 2006.

You never know when an adaptable Red-tail will suddenly appear.

Madison, Wisconsin: It's a four lane highway. An interstate ramp borders the small grassy space on one side, and morning traffic for the mall and airport on the others. The light is red, we wait. And there she is, a Red-tail on the grass, prey in talons, squeezing. The driver can't believe his eyes, though he may well have passed by without seeing just such a scene many a time before. The light changes. We're loathe to leave but make our left turn. I crane my neck to see out the rear window just in time to see her sailing off into the distance.

The Red-tail family in York County, PA is still going strong. The juveniles though now hunting and according to report sometimes successful, still set up a persistent begging chorus at the sight of either parent. The adults as far as has been scantily observed are not moved by their progeny to do more then stoically watch them. Though they may have done, no parentally hunted goodies have lately been seen being deposited for the young beggars.

One juvenile less shy than the other, when no humans are in evidence, has been observed sitting in a front yard evergreen eyeing the area below the bird feeder where mice sometimes search for spilled seed. Though the second human eyes are spyed by a window or a car turns into the distant entrance to the drive, the young hawk is off in an instant. No Pale Male and company tolerance of humans here.

My daughter reports that in the past two years since the Red-tails moved in, that garden predation by bunnies has dropped off the chart. For the first time in ten years the green beans actually made it to maturity last year. That's on the plus side.

On the minus side for humans, though always a Groundhog preference, the current resident Groundhogs seem now to exclusively dig their burrows under the potting shed, the barn, or any other stucture in which a nice solid overhang will protect their entrances. A grown Groundhog seems on the large side for a Red-tail, but I imagine a very young one could make a very tasty hawk brunch.