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Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

Vital Stats















Wing Span:

Sexual Maturity:

Mating Season:


No. of Eggs:

Birth Interval:


Typical Diet:

2-4 lbs.



3 yrs.


28-32 days




small rodents, snakes

Red-Tailed Hawk | Joe Oliver

Geography - Range

The Red-tailed Hawk ranges throughout North America to central Alaska and northern Canada, and south as far as the mountains of Panama. Although not truly migratory, they do adjust seasonally to areas with the most abundant prey. In winter many of the northern birds move south.

Related Species

Hawks are carnivores (meat eaters) who belong to the category of birds known as raptors -- birds of prey. They have strong, hooked beaks; their feet have three toes pointed forward and one turned back; and their claws, or talons, are long, curved, and very sharp. Prey is killed with the long talons and, if it is too large to swallow whole, it is torn to bite-sized pieces with the hawk's beak.

Since the beginning of recorded history, birds of prey have been both despised and revered. The sport of falconry -- using raptors as hunting aids -- has been practiced in Asia and Egypt since 3000 BC. Yet, until recent years, birds of prey have also been ruthlessly destroyed because of real or imagined competition with humans for game and domesticated animals.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a grouping of 14 subspecies, each of which is more or less specific to a geographical area, and differs from the others in size, markings, etc.


Based on general body shape and flight habits, hawks are classified into three different groups (genera): the Accipiters, the Falcons, and the Buteos.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Cooper's Hawk, and the Goshawk are Accipiters. They have long tails and short, rounded wings that enable them to dart through and around trees in pursuit of other birds, their principal prey. Typically, they fly low with a series of rapid wing beats followed by a brief period of sailing, then another series of wing beats. Accipiters are associated with brush and timbered areas.

The falcons prefer open country. They include the Prairie Falcon, the Peregrine Falcon (Duck Hawk), the Merlin (Pigeon Hawk), and the dainty little American Kestrel, also called the Sparrow Hawk. Falcons have streamlined bodies, long, pointed wings, and long tails. A series of strong, rapid wing beats gives them extremely fast flight in open country, and their swiftness allows them to overtake and capture other birds on the wing.
The American Kestrel is the smallest of our hawks and feeds mainly on mice and insects. It is the only one of the falcons that hover over its intended prey. Because of its habitat and range, it is also the only Falcon or Accipiter that most people are likely to see.

The Buteos are the largest of the hawks. They are the broad-winged, broad-tailed soaring hawks that are more readily seen because of their habit of circling high in the air or perching in dead trees or on telephone poles along the road. They include the Red-tailed, the Red-shouldered, the Swainson's, the Rough-legged, and the Ferruginous hawks.


The Red-tail is the largest hawk, usually weighing between 2 and 4 pounds. As with most raptors, the female is nearly 1/3 larger than the male and may have a wing span of 56 inches. This species shows a great deal of individual variation in plumage.

The adult has a rufous-colored tail that may or may not have a black terminal bar. Adults are dark brown on the back and the top of their wings. The underside of the bird is usually light with a dark belly band, and a cinnamon wash on the neck and chest. Immatures resemble the adults except their tail is brown with dark bars; the red- tail molts during its second year.

The adult Red-tailed Hawk is easily identified, for when it leaves its perch on slow, measured wing beats, or turns while soaring overhead, the broad, rounded tail shows a rich, russet red, hence the name. Within its range, its frequent soaring and loud voice are good pointers.

Curious Facts


  • Hawks are carnivores (meat eaters) who belong to the category of birds known as raptors.

  • The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common member of the buzzard hawk family.

  • The eyesight of a hawk is 8 times as powerful as a human's.

  • Like all hawks, the Red-tailed Hawk's talons are its main weapons.

  • The Red-tailed Hawk has a hoarse and rasping 2- to 3-second scream that is most commonly heard while soaring.

  • 85 to 90 % of the Red-tailed Hawk's diet is composed of small rodents.

Vocalization: The Red-tailed Hawk has a hoarse and rasping 2- to 3-second scream that is most commonly heard while soaring. They are loudest when defending theirs. When parents leave the nest, the young utter a loud wailing "klee-uk," repeated several times - this is a food cry.

Tail: The Red-tailed Hawk has a broad, rounded tail that shows a rich, russet red.

Eyes: The eyesight of a hawk is eight times as powerful as a human's.

Behavior: The Red-tailed Hawk is the most widespread and familiar member of the American Buteos (large soaring hawks). They nest in the month of March in tall trees. Like all other Buteos, it does not fly fast but soars at high altitudes using its keen eyesight to spot the slightest movement in the grass below. It is an aggressive bird and vigorously defends its territory, especially during the winter months when hunting is difficult.

Habitat: The Red-tailed Hawk is usually found in grasslands or marsh-shrub habitats, but is a very adaptable bird, being equally at home in deserts and forests, and at varying heights above sea level.

Food & Hunting: The Red-tailed Hawk is a most opportunistic hunter. Its diet is varied, but there is conclusive evidence now that 85 to 90 % is composed of small rodents, with rabbits, snakes, and lizards included. Where there are large numbers of pheasant, these become the food of choice in spring and summer. Like all hawks, its talons are its main weapons.

Breeding, Mating, and nest building begin in early spring, usually in March, and continue through May. This is accompanied by spectacular aerial displays by both males and females. Circling and soaring to great heights, they fold their wings and plummet to treetop level, repeating this display as much as five or six times.

Nests are located from 35 to 75 feet high in the forks of large trees. The nest is large, flat, shallow, and made of sticks and twigs about 1/2 inch in diameter. Both males and females assist in nest construction. Nest sites may be used from year to year since there is strong evidence that hawks mate for life. If the old nest is wind-damaged, layers of new nesting material are added each year.

The female usually lays 2 dull-white to bluish-white eggs that are marked with a variety of irregular reddish spots and splotches. Incubation takes 28-32 days and is maintained almost entirely by the female. During this period the male hunts for both of them, bringing her food to the nest.

When hatched, the young are covered with white down. They grow slowly and require a lot of food, which keeps both parents busy. They remain in the nest for up to 48 days. During the last 10 days or so the young, which now appear as large as the parent birds, practice flapping their wings and balancing in the wind on the edge of the nest, preparing for the days when they will launch themselves into the air.

The young fledge at about 45 days. Red-tails typically do not begin breeding until their third year.


In California, state and federal laws protect all raptors. Because of their inexperience hunting, juvenile birds may be seen eating road-killed animals. They may even kill chickens, and despite this rare occurrence, the Red-tail is known throughout the country as a "chicken hawk." As a consequence, dead hawks hanging from fences and lying under trees and power poles are mute evidence that shooters, not understanding the economic or esthetic importance of raptors, or perhaps unaware of protective laws, still kill them indiscriminately. In the rare case of an individual raptor or hawk that engages in active predation on domestic birds or animals, such a bird may be judiciously removed in accordance with current regulations.

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