Red-tailed hawks are highly efficient predators – they take a greater variety of prey than any other American raptor except the golden eagle. Red-tailed hawks are opportunistic predators so, yes, on occasion they’ve been known to take poultry and small pets.

One of Missouri’s larger birds of prey is a common, yet interesting, winter wildlife sighting for people who drive along the area’s gravel roads and highways.

Seeing red-tailed hawks on roadsides in the winter is nothing unusual, but it’s still a head-turning event for most people. Part of the reason is size – it’s hard to miss these large (up to 25 inches in length and three pounds in weight) birds and their buff-colored breasts. For those who take a closer look through binoculars, a red-tailed hawk’s fierce visage adds to its impressiveness. Then, of course, there’s that defiant scream which is a well-known wildlife sound.

Red-tailed hawks are highly efficient predators – they take a greater variety of prey than any other American raptor except the golden eagle. Red-tailed hawks are opportunistic predators so, yes, on occasion they’ve been known to take poultry and small pets. However, it should also be noted that the bulk of a red-tailed hawk’s diet consists of creatures other than poultry and their hunting habits help to control some of the small mammals that can often pose problems for humans. Between 70 and 85 percent of a red-tailed hawk’s diet are mice, rats, moles, squirrels, rabbits and other small mammals. A variety of birds make up 10 to 15 percent of a red-tailed hawk’s diet. Sometimes, reptiles, frogs and insects are included on a hawk’s menu, too. (It should also be remembered that red-tailed hawks are federally protected birds so the first step to solving hawk problems should be placing a call to your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office.)

Like many other raptors, hawks get what appears to be a “fierce” expression from a bony shield that projects above each eye. Besides shading their eyes from the sun, this also protects the eyes from tree limbs and brush when the hawks are in pursuit of dodging, feinting prey.

If you ever wondered why you see so many hawks along roads, look at the surrounding area. The brushy edges and adjoining fields that can be found along many of our roads are home to many of the small mammals upon which hawks like to feed. Hawks can be found in Missouri throughout the year, but a lack of foliage in winter makes these birds more visible. It should be remembered that hawks are federally protected birds and cannot be shot or hunted.

Of course, red-tailed hawks aren’t the only species of hawk found in Missouri. Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, kestrels, northern harriers and red-shouldered hawks are among the other types of hawks seen in the state. People can learn more about how to identify Missouri’s different species of hawks Feb. 2 at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center’s “Raptor Identification” program. No registration is required for this free event, which will be held from 2-3 p.m. and is for all ages. For more information about this and other Nature Center programs, call 417-888-4237. The Springfield Conservation Nature Center is located at 4601 S. Nature Center Way.

More information about red-tailed hawks and other types of hawks can be found in the Missouri Department of Conservation pamphlet “Missouri’s Raptors.” This free publication is available at the Department of Conservation’s Southwest Regional Office in Springfield and at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center. It’s just another example of how the Missouri Department of Conservation helps people discover nature. Information about hawks can also be found at mdc.mo.gov.

Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call 417-895-6880.