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.
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.
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.
Report your sightings of Red-tailed Hawks to eBird
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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.
These 8 Unexpected Migration Routes Give You Reason to Go Birding in Summer, All About Birds blog, July 16, 2014.
Raptors and Rat Poison, Living Bird, Summer 2015.