Author Archives: Shelby V.

Critter Card: Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamicensis) are a common hawk species in Massachusetts. Sometimes referred to as the “highway hawk,” Red-tails are often seen perched along the highways and hunting their small grassy edges and medians. By doing this, they are adapting to anthropogenic (man-made) factors that affect the environment and hunting in habitat disturbed by humans. It’s likely that you’ve seen these large birds along highways or near farms, fields, meadows, open forest plots, and suburban neighborhoods.

Look for Red-tailed Hawks perched up high, using their keen eyesight to hunt. Searching for prey such as rodents, birds, and snakes, Red-tailed Hawks rely on seeing tiny movements far below. Like most birds, Red-tails have binocular vision, meaning they keep focus on their prey with both eyes. Many predators, including humans, have binocular vision; our field of view is compromised in order to give us depth perception. A Red-tailed Hawk can see a mouse from 100 feet in the air, and dive at nearly 120 mph to catch it. Accuracy, which depth perception allows, is essential to scoring a meal.

Red-tailed Hawk looking down from a perch – Dave Larson

Listen for Red-tailed Hawks around these areas as well. Their call, which is a loud, descending scream, is distinctive once you’ve heard it. In fact, you might even recognize the call from movies. That’s because the call of the Red-tailed Hawk is often dubbed in for eagles or hawks. If the natural call of an onscreen raptor isn’t really all that impressive, a Red-tailed Hawk’s piercing and powerful cry just sounds better!

Red-tailed Hawk focused on something below – Dave Larson

Red-tailed Hawks don’t present sexual dimorphism in plumage; that is, both females and males appear the same. Red-tailed Hawks do, however, display a vast variety in their plumage. There are 14 subspecies of Red-tailed Hawk, each with distinctive plumage from extremely dark to very light and by range.

Red-tailed Hawk with prey and vegetation – Dave Larson

Red-tailed Hawks are sexually dimorphic in size, with the female  one third larger than the male. They both reach sexual maturity at three years old. In the spring, they attract mates by performing courtship flights. Soaring in circles high above the ground, a male will dive steeply before turning and climbing steeply back into the air several times over. If she is receptive, he will fly above her, reaching out to make contact with his feet. Much like eagles, Red-tails may grasp one another’s talons and free-fall, spiraling about, and even mating, before releasing each other and pulling away from the ground.

Red-tailed Hawk in flight – Dave Larson

Successfully mated pairs of Red-tailed Hawks will mostly remain monogamous, staying together for years and protecting the same territory, until one dies. These birds reach ages of 10-15 years (one lived to be over 30!) and may remain together their entire adult lives if luck allows. Males and females each take significant part in raising the young, starting with building the nest. Working together, a pair will construct a nest near the top of a tree or on the edge of a cliff. Because they will continue to protect this territory, the nest may be used again in future years, if it can last that long.

Once the eggs are laid, female/male roles change. While the female incubates (sits on the eggs) for about 30 days, she will leave the nest only occasionally, while the male takes it upon himself to hunt for her. When the chicks hatch, the female will join the male in hunting, and both parents will provide food for the young. At 45 days old, the fledglings will start exploring away from the nest, but will stay close enough to be cared for by mom and dad for another month. Some individuals may stay with their parents for nearly double that time.

Red-tailed Hawk in nest – Lisa Hutchings

Red-tailed Hawks that breed in Massachusetts are year-round residents, but in the winter we also may see the individuals that breed in Canada and Maine as they fly south where winters are less severe. These individuals are partial migrants, who don’t need to go too far to weather the seasonal change. The ones that do migrate are able to do so efficiently by using thermals, or warm columns of air that are pushing upward, to keep them afloat as they soar. Flying from one thermal to another, many hawk species can travel great distances, expending very little energy.

Red-tailed Hawk soaring – Dave Larson

What can you do for Red-tailed Hawks? If you’re looking to attract hawks to your yard, there are a few things you can do. Looking to deter hawks? We’ll cover that too.

  • Supply tall perches or nesting platforms. You can leave tall trees on your property intact, and keep an eye on any nearby telephone poles, which hawks often use. If you want to build a perch, just make sure it’s at least 14 feet off the ground.
  • Supply water in a tub or fountain that hawks and other birds can use. For safety you shouldn’t let the water become stagnant, so change it daily if you aren’t using a fountain to keep water circulated.
  • Don’t use toxic forms of pest management. If hawks visit your property they will consume many pest species that include rodents. Toxic chemicals can be passed from prey to predator, or pesky rodent to handsome hawk in this case, so it’s important to say no to pesticides, and let nature do its job so you don’t have to!

Tips for deterring hawks:

  • For people with animals at risk (such as chickens or rabbits), we recommend using top netting to deter hawks, not to mention a range of other potentially harmful species.
  • Get a rooster! Roosters are hardwired to protect their hens. They are tough birds that will take on a hawk, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll always win, just that they’ll always try.

A note on hawks at feeders: successful bird feeders are bound to attract the eye of hawks. Red-tailed Hawks might not be the most common bird of prey to visit a feeder, but it’s possible. This is the circle of life, and we can’t hold the hawk accountable for trying to survive. Remember – if you see that hawk, let it be. If it sticks around it will act as a pest control. Rats, squirrels, chipmunks, and yes – birds and rabbits – are all on the menu.

Learning Tools From Mass Audubon

Read more about the Red-tailed Hawk breeding habits on our Breeding Bird Atlas page.

Consider the change in Red-tailed Hawk populations in Massachusetts.

Compare with other Massachusetts hawk species on our Bird of Prey page.

Looking for More Resources and Activities?

Observe Red-tailed Hawks through this live stream.

Watch this video on a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk learning to hunt.

Watch and learn from this video depicting the journey of three young Red-tailed Hawks to adulthood.

Read this iNaturalist’s Notebook story about young Red-tailed Hawks. Great for kids!

Get the facts and test your knowledge of Red-tailed Hawks.

Browse 15 other resources great for students K-12.

Create a hovering hawk craft and enjoy a great story told by a Red-tailed Hawk.

Draw a Red-tailed Hawk with these online instructions.

Color a photo of a Red-tailed Hawk.


Red-tailed Hawk in Cambridge, MA – Facebook User
Red-tailed Hawk in Pepperell, MA – Facebook User

What’s Next

What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

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Cabbage White Butterfly flits into Joppa Flats Critter Card

The Cabbage White Butterfly (Pieris rapae), sometimes referred to as the Small Cabbage White, or Small White butterfly, is a species native to Europe and North Africa. True to its name, the Cabbage White was introduced to North America (near Quebec City) by settlers who brought cabbages over in 1860. This event happened again in New York just eight years later. Within 20 years the Cabbage White had spread throughout the United States and, 160 years later, has a well-established population throughout North America.

Ranging from central Canada south throughout the United States, and in parts of Mexico, the Cabbage White has spread from the original introduction spots by utilizing open areas. Weedy or grassy fields, roadsides, and of course, our backyards, are all effective habitats for the Cabbage White, provided food is available.

Female Cabbage White – Chaffee Monell

Adult Cabbage Whites consume nectar from flowers, but will typically seek out plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae) to lay their eggs. This makes sense of course, as cabbages are in this family as well, and are the main food source for the caterpillars. The eggs will hatch within a few days, and the caterpillars will spend the next couple of weeks eating and developing. At roughly 14 days old, caterpillars enter the pupa stage where they will undergo a transformation in just eight days. When they hatch they will be in their final stage of life: For three weeks they will live as butterflies, with their main purpose being reproduction. This whole cycle takes as little as 30-60 days, which means these butterflies can have two to three cycles in one summer.

Despite being a non-native species, Cabbage Whites contribute to the food web. Many predators might be deterred due to the mustard-tasting oil the caterpillars produce, but to many the Cabbage White has become an important food source. Parasitic wasps, House Sparrows, Goldfinches, and other insectivore birds will all consume these bugs.

Cabbage White on screen – Chaffee Monell

What can you do for Cabbage Whites? Since most interactions with Cabbage Whites in the garden result in crop loss, let’s talk about a few different ways to manage your backyard populations and safely protect your crops.

  • Don’t use pesticides or insecticides – a very real threat to birds and other organisms, toxic sprays will hurt more than just the caterpillars. Not to mention they may hurt you if you consume them.
  • Insect netting is a great way to start. Have this netting on early in the growing year to deter any butterflies moving in.
  • Regularly check the undersides of leaves (even if you use netting). It may be laborious to pick off the eggs, but it is effective and is a better option than losing your plants to this species.
  • Attract birds. Having feeders or nesting boxes available will draw birds in to your property. Many species, such as the ones mentioned above, will supplement their seed diet with the protein of these caterpillars and adult butterflies. Note: insect netting and birds don’t always go well together. Do research to determine the best method or methods for you.
  • Plant distraction plants – have a separate small garden which you don’t cover with a net. Allow the butterflies to lay eggs here, rather than in your crops. This is recommended if you already have Cabbage Whites aplenty. You don’t want to attract more if you don’t have them, but you certainly can draw them away from your garden in this way. If you choose, you can continue removing eggs and caterpillars from these plants to help manage the population.

Learning Tools from Mass Audubon

Discover more facts about Cabbage Whites using the Butterfly Atlas.

Read some facts about butterflies in Massachusetts.

Looking for More Resources and Activities?

Learn more about life cycles and behaviors.

Read about the geographic range of Cabbage Whites.

Watch this time lapse of Cabbage White caterpillars hatching.

Watch this time lapse of a Cabbage White pupating (making a chrysalis).

Watch this time lapse of a Cabbage White Butterfly emerging from its chrysalis.

Complete this insect checklist as you explore what species are around your home!

Print some activity pages to complete at home.


Cabbage White Butterfly art with paint pens – Hadley, age 8

What’s Next

What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

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Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to [email protected] requesting to be added to the VIP list.

Critter Card: Garter Snakes, not Garden Snakes!

A Bit about Snakes

Snakes, like all reptiles, are ectotherms, or cold-blooded, which means they use their environment to regulate their body temperature. Snakes will lay out in the sun to warm up, or slip underground to cool off. For species that hibernate, social grouping may be a necessity in order to survive. This aside, their key characteristics create an impressive animal profile: no external limbs or ears, an extremely flexible jaw that can be moved and detached from the skull in order to swallow prey whole, and enhanced chemosensation from their forked tongues. Chemosensation is the sensory function that allows snakes to sense or “taste” chemicals in the air that may otherwise undetectable for other animals. A snake will use its tongue to collect chemicals in the air, and when the tongue is brought back into the mouth, the snake inserts the forked tips into an organ called the Jacobson’s Organ on the roof of its mouth. This specialized organ helps to detect chemicals in the air, such as pheromones from other snakes, or their next meal.

Garter snakes have all these characteristics and utilize them perfectly… in your backyard. Luckily the vast majority of snakes in Massachusetts are non-venomous. As a matter of fact, snakes seeking shelter under stairs, debris, bushes, log piles, and other safe spots in your backyard are signs of a healthy ecosystem. If you find a snake, it’s best to leave it alone to go about its day, and if they stick around they may manage the pests in your yard.

Garter Snake on log – David Larson

Garter snakes are a group of 30 different species and subspecies that are native to different regions throughout the United States and southern Canada. Here in Massachusetts we’ve named the Common Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) the state reptile, and subspecies, Eastern Garter Snake (Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis) is also commonly found throughout the state.

Garter snakes are relatively small, slender snakes that hunt earthworms, amphibians, and fish, but will also take insects, leeches, and small mammals when opportunity allows. An important part of the food web, garter snakes are a natural food source for crows, magpies, hawks, owls, foxes, bears, raccoons, and even skunks. Due to their small size, garter snakes rely on a foul-smelling musk they produce, sharp teeth, and camouflage, to protect them. Because garter snakes can bite when provoked, it’s best to observe and not touch.

Garter Snake in grass – Shelby Vance

Though they are predominantly terrestrial, garter snakes may occasionally be seen climbing on shrubs or swimming in small bodies of water. Garter snakes in Massachusetts grow on average 18-26 inches, but will occasionally reach lengths of up to 4 feet. Snakes never stop growing and in order to accommodate that growth, they shed their skin. Young snakes will shed a few times a year while they grow quickly, and mature snakes will shed less often.

Garter Snake in vegetation – Dave Larson

Cold-climate garter snakes, such as those living in Massachusetts, must hibernate to survive the cold winters. Hibernating in numbers offers a greater chance of success, hence these snakes have communal dens where they come together to co-hibernate. Dozens to hundreds of garter snakes (and often other species as well) will travel great distances to come together during this time, and will often emerge in the spring all together in a group. The largest communal hibernation den found was in Canada and held an incredible 8,000 garter snakes.

Garter Snake with cloudy eyes before shedding – Joy Marzolf

In Massachusetts, hibernation also marks the time of mating. As snakes travel to their communal dens, they take advantage of the dense congregation and mate either in the autumn, before hibernation begins, or in the spring when snakes reemerge again. Female snakes, often larger than the males, will release pheromones when they are ready to mate. In warmer areas where these snakes don’t hibernate, males rely on their chemosensation to detect pheromones to help them locate the female. Dozens of males will seek out one female and mate with her, creating a mating ball. Garter snakes are ovivarporous meaning females give birth to live young; on average she will produce 20-40 young snakes, but reports range anywhere from 5 to 101. After giving birth, the young snakes immediately begin their life independently with no parental care.

Garter Snake in leaf litter – Lisa Hutchings

What can you do for garter snakes?

  • Try not to disturb the snake while observing its behavior. Watch and see where they go, can you figure out what resource they are going to?
  • Provide shelter for snakes. If you want snakes around, and you’re up for a project, building safe spots for them is fun and rewarding. Log or slate piles, rock walls, dense vegetation, large logs, and other “debris” are all good options for hiding from hawks!
  • During droughts and hot weather, supply water for snakes in your yard.
  • Hold off on mowing. Snakes will hunt their prey in long grass, and seek protection there from their natural predators.
  • If you find a snake in a truly inconvenient place, try stomping on the ground. Snakes are deaf, but the vibrations caused by your feet will often drive them away.

Herpetophobia, the fear of reptiles and Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes are common fears in society. Snakes can produce anxiety for some people which may lead to rash actions. It’s not uncommon to be afraid of snakes, but can you challenge yourself to simply observe one the next time you have an encounter? Maybe we can learn some empathy for these incredible animals, which are truly benign and ecologically important.

Learning Tools from Mass Audubon

Learn about the different snakes species in Massachusetts.

Read about snakes in general.

Read about common encounters and solutions to snake problems, and how to carefully manage this backyard resident.

Looking for More Resources and Activities?

Looking for a book? Try A Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles in the Stokes Nature Guide series.

Five fun facts about Garter Snakes.

Read more about snakes in Massachusetts.

Consider what would happen if snakes went extinct.

Read this article by the Smithsonian Magazine talking about how snakes make friends!

Learn more interesting facts here.

Watch this video to learn more about Garter Snakes and what makes them so interesting.

Watch this video to see the friendly side of snake pets.

Find out more about Garter Snakes for kids!

Research Garter Snakes with maps, worksheets, and other activities.

Craft this fun snake toy, or this colorful spiral snake.


Snake art – Hadley, age 8

What’s Next

What would you like to learn about from your backyard? Let us know in the comments.

Stay tuned for the next Critter Card coming out on Monday, by email and Facebook.

Connect With Us

Would you like to be added to Lisa Hutchings’ VIP email list? Receive special resources such as nature slideshows and educational tools for at-home learning. Send an email to [email protected] requesting to be added to the VIP list.