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Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis ORDER: ACCIPITRIFORMES FAMILY: ACCIPITRIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

This is probably the most common hawk in North America. If you’ve got sharp eyes you’ll see several individuals on almost any long car ride, anywhere. Red-tailed Hawks soar above open fields, slowly turning circles on their broad, rounded wings. Other times you’ll see them atop telephone poles, eyes fixed on the ground to catch the movements of a vole or a rabbit, or simply waiting out cold weather before climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Male
Length
17.7–22 in
45–56 cm
Wingspan
44.9–52.4 in
114–133 cm
Weight
24.3–45.9 oz
690–1300 g
Female
Length
19.7–25.6 in
50–65 cm
Wingspan
44.9–52.4 in
114–133 cm
Weight
31.7–51.5 oz
900–1460 g
Relative Size
The Red-tailed is the second-largest Buteo hawk in North America, after Ferruginous Hawk.
Other Names
  • Buse à queue rousse (French)
  • Aguililla parda (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Red-tailed Hawk has a thrilling, raspy scream that sounds exactly like a raptor should sound. At least, that’s what Hollywood directors seem to think. Whenever a hawk or eagle appears onscreen, no matter what species, the shrill cry on the soundtrack is almost always a Red-tailed Hawk.
  • Birds are amazingly adapted for life in the air. The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the largest birds you’ll see in North America, yet even the biggest females weigh in at only about 3 pounds. A similar-sized small dog might weigh 10 times that.
  • The "Harlan's Hawk" breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winters on the southern Great Plains. This very dark form of the Red-tailed Hawk has a marbled white, brown, and gray tail instead of a red one. It’s so distinctive that it was once considered a separate species, until ornithologists discovered many individuals that were intermediate between Harlan's and more typical Red-tailed Hawks.
  • Courting Red-tailed Hawks put on a display in which they soar in wide circles at a great height. The male dives steeply, then shoots up again at an angle nearly as steep. After several of these swoops he approaches the female from above, extends his legs, and touches her briefly. Sometimes, the pair grab onto one other, clasp talons, and plummet in spirals toward the ground before pulling away.
  • Red-tailed Hawks have been seen hunting as a pair, guarding opposite sides of the same tree to catch tree squirrels.
  • The oldest known Red-tailed Hawk was 28 years 10 months old.

Habitat


Open Woodland

Red-tailed Hawks occupy just about every type of open habitat on the continent. This includes desert, scrublands, grasslands, roadsides, fields and pastures, parks, broken woodland, and (in Mexico) tropical rainforest.

Food


Small Animals

Mammals make up the bulk of most Red-tailed Hawk meals. Frequent victims include voles, mice, wood rats, rabbits, snowshoe hares, jackrabbits, and ground squirrels. The hawks also eat birds, including pheasants, bobwhite, starlings, and blackbirds; as well as snakes and carrion. Individual prey items can weigh anywhere from less than an ounce to more than 5 pounds.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
1–5 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
2.2–2.7 in
5.5–6.8 cm
Egg Width
1.7–2 in
4.3–5 cm
Incubation Period
28–35 days
Nestling Period
42–46 days
Egg Description
White or buffy, blotched or speckled with buff, brown, or purple.
Condition at Hatching
Tiny and helpless, unable to raise head, and weighing about 2 ounces.
Nest Description

Both members build the nest, or simply refurbish one of the nests they’ve used in previous years. Nests are tall piles of dry sticks up to 6.5 feet high and 3 feet across. The inner cup is lined with bark strips, fresh foliage, and dry vegetation. Construction takes 4-7 days.

Nest Placement

Tree

Red-tailed Hawks typically put their nests in the crowns of tall trees where they have a commanding view of the landscape. They may also nest on a cliff ledge or on artificial structures such as window ledges and billboard platforms.

Red-tailed Hawk Nest Image 1
© Gerrit Vyn

Behavior


Soaring

Red-tailed Hawks are large, sharp-taloned birds that can be aggressive when defending nests or territories. They frequently chase off other hawks, eagles, and Great Horned Owls. Courting birds fly with legs hanging beneath them, or chase and swoop after each other, sometimes locking talons (see Cool Facts). Mated pairs typically stay together until one of the pair dies.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Red-tailed Hawk populations increased throughout much of their range between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.3 million with 75 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 24 percent in Canada, and 21 percent in Mexico. They rate a 6 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List.

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Range Map Help

Red-tailed Hawk Range Map
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Migration

Resident or short-distance migrant. Most birds from Alaska, Canada, and the northern Great Plains fly south for a few months in winter, remaining in North America. Birds across the rest of the continent typically stay put, sharing the countryside with northern arrivals.

Backyard Tips

You’re unlikely to see this bird in your backyard (unless yours is a big one). Red-tailed Hawks eat mostly mammals, so they’re less likely to visit a popular feeder than a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned hawk is. It’s very rare for a Red-tailed Hawk to go after dogs or cats.

Find This Bird

The best way to find a Red-tailed Hawk is to go for a drive, keeping your eyes peeled along fenceposts and in the sky. Chances are good that the first hawk you see will be a Red-tailed Hawk. Just make sure to look for the buteo shape (broad, rounded wings; short tail), then check field marks like the dark bars on the leading edge of the wing. Across most of the continent, Red-tails are more numerous in winter, when birds from the far north arrive to join the birds that live in your area year round.

Get Involved

Report your sightings of Red-tailed Hawks to eBird

Are you watching Red-tailed Hawks in a city? Participate in art, cultural, and science activities through Celebrate Urban Birds!

You Might Also Like

A Naturalists Notebook: Red-tailed Hawk

A Red-tailed Hawk called Pale Male is one of the most famous residents of New York City (and shares an apartment building with Woody Allen). There are many websites about him, including his own Wikipedia page and a page that accompanies a PBS documentary about him.

Hawks can have extremely variable plumages, and we’ve only described the main varieties in this account. For much more thorough descriptions, consult any of the following hawk ID books: Raptors of Eastern North America or Raptors of Western North America, Hawks in Flight, or Hawks from Every Angle or visit the online Hawks in Flight Gallery.

All About Birds blog, These 8 Unexpected Migration Routes Give You Reason to Go Birding in Summer, July 16, 2014.