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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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Keys to identification Help

Hawks
Hawks
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Red-tailed Hawks are large hawks with typical Buteo proportions: very broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail. Large females seen from a distance might fool you into thinking you’re seeing an eagle. (Until an actual eagle comes along.)

  • Color Pattern

    Most Red-tailed Hawks are rich brown above and pale below, with a streaked belly and, on the wing underside, a dark bar between shoulder and wrist. The tail is usually pale below and cinnamon-red above, though in young birds it’s brown and banded. “Dark-morph” birds are all chocolate-brown with a warm red tail. “Rufous-morph” birds are reddish-brown on the chest with a dark belly.

  • Behavior

    You’ll most likely see Red-tailed Hawks soaring in wide circles high over a field. When flapping, their wingbeats are heavy. In high winds they may face into the wind and hover without flapping, eyes fixed on the ground. They attack in a slow, controlled dive with legs outstretched – much different from a falcon’s stoop.

  • Habitat

    The Red-tailed Hawk is a bird of open country. Look for it along fields and perched on telephones poles, fenceposts, or trees standing alone or along edges of fields.

Range Map Help

Red-tailed Hawk Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Light morph adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Light morph adult
    • Variable belly band of dark splotches
    • White throat
    • White chest
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • © Steve Neitzel, Gulf Shores, Alabama, December 2007
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Large hawk
    • Long, broad, rounded wings
    • Reddish tail with thin black band near tip
    • Mottled white shoulder patches
    • © Don Holland, Oregon, April 2007
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Long, broad, rounded wings
    • Variable belly band of dark splotches
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • Dusky trailing edge to wings
    • © ashockenberry, Ontario, Canada, September 2008
  • Juvenile

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Tail dull brown with many dark bars
    • Mottled white shoulder patches
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • © Kevin J. McGowan, Tompkins Co, New York, November 2007
  • Light morph adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Light morph adult
    • Variable belly band of dark streaks
    • Dark throat
    • Pale rusty wash across belly
    • Bare yellow legs
    • © Pam Koch, Flaggstaff, Arizona, February 2008
  • Light moprh adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Light moprh adult
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • Belly markings highly variable; may be nearly clean white
    • © Steven Smith sgs1966, January 2009
  • Dark morph adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Dark morph adult
    • Dark all over
    • Reddish tail
    • Bare yellow legs
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • © Christine Haines, February 2007
  • Dark morph adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Dark morph adult
    • Extremely variable; some light, some dark
    • Dark all over
    • Reddish tail
    • Bare yellow legs
    • © Janet Rosenberg, February 2007
  • Rufous morph adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Rufous morph adult
    • All dark chest and belly
    • Dark rufous head and chest
    • Amount of rusty varies considerably
    • Reddish tail
    • © Dennis Curry, Florence, Arizona, January 2008
  • Rufous morph adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Rufous morph adult
    • Dark rufous head and chest
    • Dark chest and belly, barred with rufous
    • Amount of rusty varies considerably
    • © Donald Metzner, December 2007
  • Pale adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Pale adult
    • Mottled white shoulder patches
    • Reddish tail
    • Some with large amounts of white on head; this individual is extreme
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • © T. R. Michels, Burnsville, Minnesota, October 2008
  • Juvenile

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Thick, dark streaks across belly
    • White chest
    • Tail with many dark bars
    • Bare yellow legs
    • © lynnmsmith, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, February 2008
  • Juvenile

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Juvenile
    • Variable belly band of dark streaks
    • Reddish wash across chest
    • Large hawk
    • Bare yellow legs
    • © Lorcan Keating, San Francisco, California, August 2008
  • Juvenile

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Juvenile
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Long, broad, rounded wings
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • Dark leading edge to wings
    • Variable belly band of dark splotches
    • © Betty Lemley, New Jersey, February 2008
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Long, broad, rounded wings
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • Variable belly band of dark streaks, some with nearly none
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • © Ricardo Turner, August 2007
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Large hawk
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • Dark leading edge to wings
    • Dusky trailing edge to wings
    • © France Dewaghe, Wilmington, Delaware, March 2006
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Long, broad, rounded wings
    • Tail pale reddish from below
    • Variable belly band of dark streaks
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • © Donald Metzner, February 2007
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Reddish tail with thin black band near tip
    • Variable amount of black barring in rest of tail
    • Mottled white shoulder patches
    • © Ted Schroeder, February 2007
  • Adult

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Adult
    • Reddish tail with thin black band near tip
    • Long, broad, rounded wings
    • Mottled white shoulder patches
    • © Gil Miller, Vienna, Virginia, February 2008
  • Leucistic

    Red-tailed Hawk

    Leucistic
    • Large hawk
    • Individuals with variable amounts of white in plumage common
    • Extreme individuals can be pure white
    • Moderately short, square tail
    • © John Stanek, Westminster, Colorado, February 2008

Similar Species

  • Adult

    Red-shouldered Hawk

    Adult
    • Orange and white barred breast and belly
    • Brown back with white mottling
    • White barred wings
    • Black tail with white bands
    • © Lew Scharpf, Auburn, Alabama, January 2009
  • Adult

    Red-shouldered Hawk

    Adult
    • Smaller and more slender
    • Orange and white barred breast and belly
    • White barred wings
    • Often shows rufous shoulder mark
    • © tsiya, Florida, November 2007
  • Immature

    Red-shouldered Hawk

    Immature
    • Brown back with white mottling
    • Dark tail with brown bands
    • © monteverde2000, Rhode Island, February 2008
  • Immature

    Red-shouldered Hawk

    Immature
    • Brown back with white mottling
    • Dark tail with brown bands
    • Pale breast with even brown streaks
    • © tsiya, Florida, January 2009
  • Adult

    Red-shouldered Hawk

    Adult
    • Black tail with white bands
    • Orangish shoulders (may not be obvious)
    • Barred undersides to primaries
    • © Lorcan Keating, San Francisco, California, October 2008
  • Adult

    Red-shouldered Hawk

    Adult
    • Usually shows pale (translucent) patches near wingtips
    • Black tail with white bands
    • Orangish shoulders (may not be obvious)
    • Barred undersides to primaries
    • © Ken Schneider, Florida, February 2009
  • Adult light morph

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult light morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Brown chest, white belly
    • Dark head, white throat and forehead
    • Dark back, white shoulders
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, Manitoba, Canada
  • Adult light morph

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult light morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Brown chest, white belly
    • Dark head, white throat and forehead
    • Dark back, white shoulders
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, Manitoba, Canada, June 2007
  • Immature

    Swainson's Hawk

    Immature
    • Pale head with variable amount of dark markings
    • Dark brown and white mottled breast
    • Brown back with limited white mottling
    • © Larry Meade, Katy Prairie, Texas, April 2006
  • Adult light morph

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult light morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Brown chest with white throat and face, white belly
    • White shoulders and dark flight feathers
    • Tail indistinctly barred pale and dark
    • © Scott Taylor, Berthoud, Colorado, September 2004
  • Adult intermediate morph

    Swainson's Hawk

    Adult intermediate morph
    • Similar to darker plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Dark chest and upperparts, rufous belly
    • White forehead, chin, and undertail
    • © Scott Taylor, Weld Co., Colorado, June 2005
  • Immature

    Cooper's Hawk

    Immature
    • Pale breast with thin, brown streaking
    • Reddish brown head, brown back
    • Long, brown and gray barred tail
    • Yellow eye
    • Sleek shape
    • © Michael Hogan, New Jersey, February 2006
  • Immature

    Cooper's Hawk

    Immature
    • Pale breast with thin, brown streaking
    • Long, brown and gray barred tail
    • Yellow eye; long, yellow legs
    • Sleek shape
    • © William Jobes, Pennsylvania, January 2009
  • Adult

    Cooper's Hawk

    Adult
    • Slate gray back and crown
    • Orange and white barred breast and belly
    • Long, light and dark gray barred tail
    • Pale cheek and nape
    • © Michael Hogan, New Jersey, April 2004
  • Adult

    Cooper's Hawk

    Adult
    • Slate gray back and crown
    • Orange and white barred breast and belly
    • Long, light and dark gray barred tail
    • Red eye
    • © Seth Reams, Portland, Oregon, October 2007
  • Immature

    Cooper's Hawk

    Immature
    • Proportionally short, broad wings
    • Large, long, rounded black and white barred tail
    • Pale breast with thin, brown streaking
    • Underside of wings barred black and white
    • © William Jobes, Pennsylvania, September 2008
  • Light morph

    Rough-legged Hawk

    Light morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Dark belly, pale chest with dark streaking
    • Pale head
    • Dark tail with white base
    • Dark back with limited white mottling
    • © Ronaldok, Alberta, Canada, January 2009
  • Light morph

    Rough-legged Hawk

    Light morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Dark back with limited white mottling
    • Pale head with indistinct dark eyeline
    • Dark tail with white base
    • © Ronaldok, Alberta, Canada, December 2008
  • Light morph

    Rough-legged Hawk

    Light morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • Dark wrist patches contrast with white primaries
    • Dark belly, pale chest with dark streaking
    • Pale head
    • Tail with white base and dark tip
    • © Bill Corwin, Washington, December 2007
  • Adult light-morph

    Ferruginous Hawk

    Adult light-morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • White throat, breast, and belly
    • Barred rufous sides and feathered legs
    • Rufous back with black markings
    • Pale face, wide gape
    • © Gerry Dewaghe, December 2008
  • Adult light-morph

    Ferruginous Hawk

    Adult light-morph
    • Similar to lighter plumages of Red-tailed Hawk
    • White throat, breast, and belly
    • Reddish leg feathers
    • Mostly white wings with dark tips and reddish shoulders
    • Whitish tail
    • © Robinsegg, Utah, November 2005
  • Adult

    Broad-winged Hawk

    Adult
    • Pale underwings with black border
    • Dark brown head and chest, pale belly
    • Dark tail with one thick white band
    • © Byard Miller, Newmarket, New Hampshire, June 2008
  • Immature

    Northern Goshawk

    Immature
    • Brown back with white mottling
    • Long, black and brown banded tail with uneven bands
    • White eyebrow usually obvious
    • © Matt MacGillivray, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, January 2009
  • Immature

    Northern Goshawk

    Immature
    • Brown back with white mottling
    • Long, black and brown banded tail with uneven bands
    • Buffy breast with brown streaking
    • White eyebrow usually obvious
    • © Matt MacGillivray, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, January 2009
  • Adult female

    Northern Harrier

    Adult female
    • Flat face with pale collar
    • Streaked nape and breast
    • Very long wings and tail
    • Yellow eye
    • White rump in flight
    • © Kevin Bolton, New Jersey, February 2009

Similar Species

The first step with identifying any hawk is to use its size and shape to decide what type you're looking at. Is it one of the three main groups: buteo, accipiter, or falcon? Buteos have broad, rounded wings and short, wide tails, and you often see them soaring without flapping. Red-shouldered Hawks, another common buteo, tend to be smaller than Red-tails with a banded tail and warm brown barring below. Swainson's Hawk has a dark trailing edge to the underside of the wing, and a dark chest. From a distance you might confuse a soaring Red-tail with a Turkey Vulture (also very common across North America in summer), but Turkey Vultures have longer, more rectangular wings, which the birds hold above horizontal, forming an easily visible V. Turkey Vultures are also much less steady when they soar.

Regional Differences

Red-tailed Hawks have extremely variable plumage, and some of this variation is regional. A Great Plains race called "Krider's" hawk is pale, with a whitish head and washed-out pink in the tail. Light-morph western birds tend to be more streaky on the underparts than eastern Red-tails; south Texas forms are darker above, without the dark belly band most other Red-tails have. Dark-morph birds can occur anywhere but are more common in western North America - particularly in Alaska and northwest Canada, where the all-dark "Harlan's" race is common.

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.