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  • Writer's pictureVicki Wilmarth

The Red-Tailed Hawk and the Rattlesnake

This image of a young Red-tailed Hawk with a baby Prairie Rattlesnake is one of my favorite images of 2021. And it was purely an accident that I caught that picture.

In late October 2021, I was driving near McGee Lake in Potter County, hoping to discover whether the Bald Eagles had arrived for the winter. The fall had been a good one for also spotting Red-tailed Hawks, so I had recently photographed enough Red-tailed Hawks that I might have easily overlooked this one. I had started to ignore them when I was out taking bird photographs, always looking for the unusual or more interesting shot.

However, for some reason that morning (probably because the early eastern light was spotlighting him well), I stopped the car on the opposite side of Parsley Road and focused my camera on a first year Red-tailed Hawk sitting on a power pole. After a few seconds, the hawk quickly left the pole, not because I bumped him, but because he was diving straight down into the grass, only to come up with a small Prairie Rattlesnake. I had never seen that behavior before and startled, I did not get as many clear shots of the dive and the catch as I would have liked.

Hawks are not immune to rattlesnake venom, so they attack swiftly from above and then break the snake's neck or suffocate it with their talons. The snake usually can't fight back, because it has no ground to press against to rear up and strike. This bird seemed to pause for the snake to die before eating, but at least one of my shots make it appear that once the feast began, the snake was still alive because it is holding its head up.

I just kept snapping that shutter at 10 frames per second while I watched the whole process, double-checking my settings and results as often as I dared take my eyes off the hawk. In about 5 minutes, the hawk left the half-eaten snake and flew away, leaving the rest of the poisonous beast on top of the power poll for another bird of prey. Hawks often refrain from eating a whole rattlesnake, even a small one like this, to avoid ingesting too much venom. I could only guess that this Red-tailed Hawk knew when he had had enough of a delicious but potentially dangerous meal.

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