Salem Maritime National Historic Site
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  • Red-Tailed Hawk

    Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)


    • Secondary consumer: organisms that eat primary consumers for energy, the third link in the food chain. 
    • Raptors: also known as birds of prey; bird species that primarily hunt and feed on vertebrates relatively large to their size. Examples include hawks, eagles, owls, and vultures.  
    • Talon: the curved, pointed, powerful claw of a raptor. 
    • Prey: an animal that is hunted and eaten by a predator for food.  
    • Predator: an animal that hunts and eats prey animals for food.  

    Audio Transcript

    So far we’ve identified the first two links in the food chain, producer and primary consumer. In our example, the shagbark hickory produces nuts consumed by the eastern grey squirrel. The next link in the food chain is a secondary consumer, and in our example, the red-tailed hawk. 

    (Hawk call) 

    Red-tail hawks might cry out while hunting, or in response to a predator or competitor in their territory. They’re known as raptors, or birds of prey.  

    Like other secondary consumers, hawks are carnivores, meaning they eat other animals, like the eastern grey squirrel, for energy. You might spot a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead to court a mate or defend their territory, or perched in a tree, watching for prey. Like other raptors, hawks have keen eyesight, sharp talons, and strong beaks, all very important adaptations for hunting and eating prey.  

    Red-tailed hawks are known to eat reptiles, like snakes, small mammals, like squirrels and rabbits, and even other birds.  

    When multiple different species share one predator, its helpful to recognize information different species are sharing. Scientists call this practice eavesdropping. For example, some birds like the American Robin, make a special alarm call to warn other robins when a predator, like the red-tailed hawk, is near. But other birds, like the black-capped chickadee, might hear that alarm call and recognize what it means. The chickadee might alter its behavior and be on the lookout for a predator, and when they see one, they’ll start their own alarm call too.  

    Even mammals, like the eastern grey squirrel, learn to understand bird language. The eastern grey squirrel will act more vigilant after hearing a red-tail hawk screech, or alarm calls from songbirds. They might freeze in place, flee for cover, or look up. And when those same songbirds make non-alarm calls, like contact calls to share their location, squirrels eavesdrop and recognize that there’s no predator near.