Hawks of Ellis County

By Carolyn Gritzmaker

Several species of hawks are found here during the winter months:  the red-tailed(Buteo jamaicensis), red-shouldered(Buteo lineatus), sharp-shinned(Accipiter straitus) and Cooper’s hawk(Accipiter cooperii);  the northern harrier(Circus cyaneus) and American kestrel(Falco sparverius). Of these, only the red-tailed and red-shouldered are common permanent residents in our county. The others either winter here or are only rarely seen during the rest of the year.

A familiar sight is that of a lone hawk flying just a few feet off the ground, back and forth across open fields. Also called the marsh hawk, the northern harrier is a slim, long-tailed hawk.  Its wings are long and narrow. A good field mark is the hawk’s prominent white rump. It is almost never seen perched in trees, but will occasionally light on a post just long enough to eat its prey. These are almost exclusively rodents and rabbits.

The most common large hawk we see is the red-tailed. On the adult bird the reddish tail is quite noticeable, but only the top side of the tail is that dark. The underside is much lighter. When seen soaring overhead, their tail will look almost pink. The red-tailed hawk’s overall plumage is extremely variable. One winter we saw a pale form of the red-tail in western Ellis County. This bird was almost white and cream color with a very pale pink tail. Known as a Kreider’s red-tail, the bird was seen several times in January. Red-tailed hawks are often seen perched in trees or on poles in open areas. They are very beneficial birds in that they prey mainly on rodents.

The red-shouldered hawk is often seen in wooded areas near streams and cultivated fields. It is a large hawk with reddish shoulder patches and a dark tail with narrow white stripes. Its food consists of rodents, insects and small birds.

Two of our small hawks are almost identical in coloring and therefore easily confused. Both have dark bluish-gray backs, rusty underparts and long, barred tails. The Cooper’s hawk is the largest, and its tail is rounded. It is very fast and powerful, and is also known as the “blue darter”.  The Cooper’s hawk is found in wooded areas, but is somewhat uncommon. The smaller sharp-shinned hawk is about the size of a dove, and its long tail has a square tip.  It is only found here in the winter months. It, too, inhabits the woodland areas and brushy margins of fields. Both these small hawks feed on small birds and rodents.

The American kestrel is a falcon, and very common in our area. You can barely drive two or three miles without seeing one either sitting on a wire, or hovering over a field. Kestrels were one called the sparrow hawk for its small size, with a rusty back and two dark streaks on its face. Most kestrels will migrate to the north for the breeding season.  It is possible that some may stay and nest in this area, but due to their extremely secretive nature during nesting, they are rarely seen during the summer.

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