Catching squirrels, rabbits, mice, and birds in the wild is often not easy, and requires skill, stealth and timing. More often than not, the raptor is unsuccessful and the prey escapes.
When farmers took over much of the landscape in the 18th and 19th Centuries, they eliminated some raptor prey, but also introduced others. What’s more, some of the new fare were easy pickings.
Chickens were so popular with some hawk species that any hawk that attacked domesticated fowl was called a “chicken hawk.” However, the Red-tailed Hawk was probably what farmers saw most, and was the most feared “chicken hawk.”
In a way, this is unusual. Red-tails are not true “bird hawks.” Many Accipiters like the Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks feed primarily on birds and are designed to catch them on the wing – they are smaller, sleeker and have long tails that allow them to maneuver quickly. By comparison, the bigger Red-tailed Hawk is not as agile. It can catch an occasional crow or waterfowl, but it’s unlikely a Red-tail could nail the chickadee or titmouse that a Sharpie can catch.
When the European farmers arrived, they provided virtually flightless fowl to the native raptors. Domesticated chickens were slow, fat and tasty. It was Red-tail heaven – until the farmers got good guns. Hawks were treated as vermin, bounties were paid for their bodies, and countless numbers of them were killed.
Even in modern-day Ridgefield, “chicken hawks” are at work. Last fall, we got a call from Wendy Llewellyn who had recently returned to maintaining full-sized, egg-laying chickens at her home. One day, “they were making strange noises,” she said. She looked outside and “there was what I assume was a hawk, trying to take off with one of them,” Wendy said. “I ran out and the hawk dropped the chicken.”
A week earlier, her cat had been limping. “When I brought her to the vet, he said she looked like she had been in a fight and was covered with lacerations,” Wendy said, wondering whether it was a tom cat – or the hungry hawk.
Small mammals are the main fare of the Red-tail, our most common hawk, and if the opportunity arises, the Red-tail may attack small dogs and cats.
“Large raptors, such as Red-tailed Hawks and Great Horned Owls, can indeed kill a small pet,” says Hawks Aloft, a raptor conservation organization. “We have received dozens of inquiries about six-pound dogs, ten-pound dogs, etc., all the way up to a 60-pound dog. There is no specific cut-off weight at which your pet’s safety is guaranteed. If the size of your dog or cat is similar to or not much larger than naturally occurring raptor prey, there is a risk.”
Early one morning a couple years ago, I was walking our nine-pound Chihuahua, Charley, down the road when suddenly I saw a Red-tail flying straight at us, only about eight feet off the ground. I am sure he was eying Charley, who was about 10 feet ahead of me on a leash. However, as soon as the hawk noticed me, he veered upward and headed off into the woods.
We never leave Charley alone in the yard. He and any other small dog or cat could be lunch for not only large raptors, but coyotes, the recently reintroduced Fishers (large, mammal-eating weasels), perhaps foxes, and maybe even cougars (reliably sighted in Ridgefield last year).
So keep Fido and Kitty indoors or under surveillance.