A red tail hawk soars in the sky. Notice the reddish tail coloring and its broad wings compared to the inset photo of an osprey (a type of falcon) that has pointed wings. (Photos courtesy Todd Katzner)
The peregrine falcons that nest atop the Cathedral of Learning in Oakland and the Gulf Tower Downtown get a lot of press.
In the flurry of attention Pittsburgh showers on the endangered species of falcons, red tail hawks—a pair of which nest on Allegheny General Hospital— get left out.
Of course, our feathered Northside neighbors are thriving not only in Pittsburgh, but across North America. They are well adapted to urban environments, and although they make their nests inaccessible to humans, they do well around people.
Because red tails are so visible, Pittsburghers sometimes confuse them for the peregrines, said National Aviary Director of Conservation and Field Research Todd Katzner.
“The peregrines are high-profile birds,” Katzner said. “We’ve had people who thought pigeons were peregrines.”
Strangely enough, that isn’t as far off as one might think, since pigeons and peregrines share a common ancestry. Red tails and peregrines are about the same size, and have the same basic head and beak shape, so it’s not hard to confuse them, either.
“Red tails, rather conveniently, have a reddish tail,” Katzner said.
If pigeons are your enemy, then red tails are your friend. These “generalist predators” eat pigeons, rabbits, squirrels and many other small mammals that spend time on the ground.
“Red tails are big soaring birds … they’re not speed demons,” unlike peregrines, who eat mostly flying things like small birds and insects.
Hawks have broad wings made for coasting, whereas falcons have long, pointy wings made for speed and sharp turns. Wing shape is one way to distinguish between the birds; another is whether or not it flaps them during flight.
“If it’s not flapping, it’s a red tail,” Katzner said.
While Katzner did not know how long the AGH red tails have been there, he said it’s likely they’ve been there upwards of 10 years. Like most birds of prey, once a red tail pair creates a territory, it only leaves if it’s driven out, even if one of the pair dies.
“There’s often a lot of hanky panky going on. Males will try to copulate with the neighbors.” But, the male is less likely to fool around with the neighbor’s wife if the neighbor has guns, he added.
“These birds have a lot of guns.”
Violent territory takeovers are not uncommon with birds of prey, nor with red tails. Younger males may try to kill or drive older males out of the territory and take over as the female’s mate.
“They’re wonderful predators,” Katzner said, and that makes them good fighters, too.
Out of red tails that reach adulthood, the average lifespan is between seven and 15 years, though some could live as long as 20.
Other common birds of prey in the Pittsburgh area are turkey vultures, bald and golden eagles, red shouldered hawks and broad wing hawks. Of those species, vultures, bald eagles and red shouldered hawks breed in Pittsburgh, and the rest migrate through the area.
Katzner said that golden eagles used to breed in the area, but have been driven out by humans and now chiefly breed in Canada.
So, the next time you find yourself walking in East Commons Park or down North Avenue, keep your eyes to the sky and you might see a red tail on the hunt.