Red-Tailed Hawk

Bird of the Month: Red-tailed Hawk

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Micl Thompson (Red-tailed Hawk)

PC: Micl Thompson (Red-tailed Hawk)

Buteo jamaicensis

Length 19-25" long

AOU Band code RTHA

The Red-tailed Hawk (RTHA) is a member of the buteo family of high flying hawks and its length varies from 19-25". The genus name Buteo is from the Latin for a kind of falcon or hawk. The species name jamaicensis is Latin for island of Jamaica, West Indies, where the first scientific specimen came from.

This is the most widespread and familiar large hawk in North America. It is bulky and broad-winged, designed for effortless soaring with wings held in a shallow V. It usually prefers open country and is commonly seen perched on roadside poles or sailing over fields and woods.

Although adults can usually be recognized by the trademark reddish-brown tail, the rest of the plumage can be quite variable, especially west of the Mississippi. Western red-tails can range from blackish (Harlan’s) to rufous-brown (most common) to nearly white (Krider’s). When perched it resembles "the size and shape of a football". Typically, RTHAs have a dark head, light bib and indistinct belly band. The back shows variable pale mottling on the scapulars, sometimes referred to as windows. Juveniles usually have gray-brown tails with many blackish bands. All adults and juveniles have a dark mark on the leading edge of the under wing which distinguishes it from all other hawks.

Its diet is varied and consists of small mammals, birds, and reptiles, especially snakes. Most of its hunting is done by watching from a high perch and then swooping down to catch the prey in its talons. It also hunts by flying over fields and by "kiting" (hovering in place), watching for prey below. Small prey is carried to the perch, while large prey is usually eaten on the ground. In courtship, male and female soar in high circles with shrill cries. The male may fly high and then dive repeatedly in spectacular maneuvers. It may catch prey and pass it to the female in flight. Its cry is a downslurred "keeeear."

The nest is usually in a tree, up to 120' above the ground, which is often taller than the surrounding trees. They also nest on cliff ledges, among the arms of giant cactus, or on artificial structures such as towers or buildings. The nest is built by both sexes and is a bulky bowl of sticks lined with finer materials. There are usually 2-3 eggs, sometimes 4, and rarely 1 or 5. Eggs are whitish blotched with brown. Both parents incubate the eggs until hatching, in 28-35 days. The female stays with the young most of the first few weeks while the male brings her food. The female tears the food into small pieces and feeds it to the young. After about 4-5 weeks, the food is dropped into the nest and the young feed themselves. The young leave the nest 6-7 weeks after hatching, but it will be another two weeks before they are strong fliers. The fledglings stay with the parents for several more weeks.

Northern red-tails may migrate far to the south, but many at central or southern latitudes are permanent residents.