Viewed from another perspective, to call an animal “common” is to say that it is incredibly successful. After all, prolificacy isn’t easy to achieve, especially when being prolific, for an animal species, means having to adapt to us. From the raptor world, perhaps no species embodies this more than the red-tailed hawk. Seen along highways, in neighborhoods, on tree branches and telephone poles, soaring through the air or sitting with utter contentedness as they survey nearby fields, these birds have become masters of their domain by mastering ours. Common, yes. Unimpressive? Absolutely not.
Red-tailed hawks are large-bodied, broad-winged birds of the buteo family, found all over North America. Like other raptors, the females are larger, but red-tailed hawks are unique in that there is more overlap between male and female size ranges. They are so often spotted, and so widely ranged, because of their versatility: red-tailed hawks will eat literally anything that presents itself, from jackrabbits to, when nothing else is available, insects. For a bird that can reach three pounds, insects don’t count for much, but the fact that some hawks have been seen feasting on mass gatherings of grasshoppers underscores their place as an “anything goes” kind of predator. Red-tailed hawks have the size and strength for hunting mammals, while still being able to take birds, lizards, and anything else that comes their way. Compared to the accipiter family of hawks, who specialize in hunting birds, red-tailed hawks are the quintessential jack-of-all-trades, able and willing to give their all, no matter the prey in question. This versatility allows them to thrive, even as humans develop more and more of the natural world. Living on their own or in mated pairs, red-tailed hawks are quick to adapt to human encroachment, favoring farm fields and bulldozed lots where people have inadvertently created the ideal environment for rodent hunting. Some red-tails have learned to follow threshers working farm fields, waiting to snag rodents fleeing in the machines’ wake. Red-tailed hawks have even made their mark on pop culture: the red-tail’s screeching vocalization has become the definitive raptor sound, used in movies, television shows, and commercials, often being dubbed over bald eagles to replace our national symbol’s less than awe-inspiring cackling with something more majestic.
Common doesn’t always mean mundane. In this case, “common” means a raptor strong enough, fast enough, smart enough, and adaptable enough, to survive, thrive, everywhere it ranges. Being common just makes it easier for us to spot, stop, and admire one of the most impressive birds in North America.