The red-tailed hawk is the most common bird of prey in North America, but because this buteo has many plumage colors it can also be one of the most challenging to identify. Western populations have more variation, but fortunately every type of red-tailed hawk has similar characteristics and field marks that can be noted.
Common Name: Red-Tailed Hawk, Red-Tail, Hen-Hawk
Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
Scientific Family: Accipitridae
Appearance and Identification
The red-tailed hawk is common and widespread, but can vary from very light to nearly black coloration, which makes proper identification difficult. Birders who are aware of the key characteristics of these common hawks can feel more confident about recognizing and identifying them.
- Bill: Large, strongly hooked, yellow cere at base
- Size: 20-22 inches long with 50-inch wingspan, broad wings
- Colors: Black, brown, white, rust, yellow
- Markings: Genders are similar with brown mottling on the upperparts, though the amount of white in their plumage can vary greatly. The wings are light below with a brown border, interior barring and dark “commas” at the wrists, as well as a distinctive dark patch at the leading edge. The head is lighter brown, and the tail is rust red with a thin dark band near the tip. The chest and throat are white and the abdomen has a wide band of brown streaks or spotting. The legs are feathered with faint rusty barring and the feet are yellow. Juvenile red-tailed hawks do not develop the red tail until they are two years old, and instead their tails are finely barred.
Foods, Diet and Foraging
Red-tailed hawks are carnivorous raptors, and hunt a wide variety of prey. Small and medium mammals, reptiles, small birds and large insects may all be part of their diet. These hawks routinely perch on trees or power poles adjacent to open areas while they watch for prey, and they will quickly swoop down on unsuspecting morsels.
They will also scan for prey while soaring above fields. They may take smaller prey back to a perch to feed, while larger prey is eaten on the ground with the raptor hunched over it in a mantling position to hide the meal from potential competitors. After eating, these birds will stay perched and calm as they digest, and will regurgitate pellets to expel material they cannot digest.
Habitat and Migration
Red-tailed hawks are common and widespread throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico in a wide range of habitats, including grassland, tundra, desert, marshes and forests. These birds can even adapt to suburban areas. Canadian bird populations and those in the extreme northern United States may migrate seasonally depending on weather severity and food supplies. In most of their range, however, red-tailed hawks do not migrate.
The red-tailed hawk’s signature descending “kreeeeeeeer” screech is commonly used in movies, no matter what bird of prey is pictured. These hawks also have a strong “screee” scolding call and chicks in the nest use a high-pitched begging call to attract attention from their parents.
Red-tailed hawks are commonly seen perched on poles, fences or trees near roadsides as they scan fields for prey.
In flight, they hold their wings fairly level and their primary feathers may splay slightly in a "finger" pattern. These birds can be aggressive when nesting, and may harass larger raptors such as osprey or eagles that enter into their territory. They can also occasionally dive at humans who approach too closely to their nests.
Red-tailed hawks are monogamous birds that will return to the same nesting site each year. The nest is a pile of sticks lined with vegetation, smaller sticks or other fine material, and is usually placed in a tall tree or on a cliff ledge. Both parents will incubate a brood of 2-3 whitish, blotched or speckled eggs for 30-35 days, and the young birds will remain in the nest for 42-45 days. Both parents care for the hatchlings, and a mated pair will raise one brood per year.
Attracting Red-Tailed Hawks
These are not common backyard birds, but birders with large, undeveloped acreage may attract red-tailed hawks by leaving dead trees and fence posts available as perches. Ensuring that grassland is left undisturbed for small mammals and other prey will also help attract hunting hawks to an area.
While red-tailed hawks are not considered threatened or endangered, they are at risk from poisoning. Poorly controlled pesticide and rodenticide use is a grave threat to these raptors, as the birds will ingest contaminated prey.
- Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)
- Rough-Legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)
- Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)
- Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)
- Broad-Winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus)