Photo: Tom Vezo/Vireo

Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

This is the most widespread and familiar large hawk in North America, bulky and broad-winged, designed for effortless soaring. An inhabitant of open country, it is commonly seen perched on roadside poles or sailing over fields and woods. Although adults usually can be recognized by the trademark reddish-brown tail, the rest of their plumage can be quite variable, especially west of the Mississippi: Western Red-tails can range from blackish to rufous-brown to nearly white.
Conservation status Widespread and common. Apparently has increased in some areas since the 1960s, and numbers now stable or still increasing. In several regions of North America, Red-tailed Hawks are adapting to nesting in cities.
Family Hawks and Eagles
Habitat Open country, woodlands, prairie groves, mountains, plains, roadsides. Found in any kind of terrain that provides both some open ground for hunting and some high perches. Habitats may include everything from woodland with scattered clearings to open grassland or desert with a few trees or utility poles.
This is the most widespread and familiar large hawk in North America, bulky and broad-winged, designed for effortless soaring. An inhabitant of open country, it is commonly seen perched on roadside poles or sailing over fields and woods. Although adults usually can be recognized by the trademark reddish-brown tail, the rest of their plumage can be quite variable, especially west of the Mississippi: Western Red-tails can range from blackish to rufous-brown to nearly white.
Photo Gallery
  • adult, Eastern
  • adult, Southwestern (Fuertes' Hawk)
  • adult (Harlan's Hawk)
  • adult (Krider's Hawk)
  • adult, Western, dark morph
  • juvenile, Eastern
  • adult, Western, dark morph
  • adult, Western, light morph
  • adult, Eastern
  • adult, Western, dark morph
  • adult, Eastern
  • adult, Western, light morph
  • adult, Western, light morph
  • adult, Western, dark intermediate morph
  • adult (light Harlan's Hawk)
  • juvenile, Eastern
  • adult with nestlings, Western, dark morph
  • adult, Eastern
  • adult (Harlan's Hawk)
Feeding Behavior

Does most hunting by watching from a high perch, then swooping down to capture prey in its talons. Also hunts by flying over fields, watching for prey below. Small prey carried to perch, large prey often partly eaten on ground.


Eggs

2-3, sometimes 4, rarely 1-5. Whitish, blotched with brown. Incubation is by both parents, 28-35 days. Young: Female remains with young most of the time during first few weeks. Male brings most food, and female tears it into small pieces to feed to the young. After about 4-5 weeks, food is dropped in nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young leave the nest about 6-7 weeks after hatching, but not capable of strong flight for another 2 weeks or more. Fledglings may remain with parents for several more weeks.


Young

Female remains with young most of the time during first few weeks. Male brings most food, and female tears it into small pieces to feed to the young. After about 4-5 weeks, food is dropped in nest, and young feed on it themselves. Young leave the nest about 6-7 weeks after hatching, but not capable of strong flight for another 2 weeks or more. Fledglings may remain with parents for several more weeks.

Diet

Varied, includes small mammals, birds, reptiles. Diet varies with location and season. Mammals such as voles, rats, rabbits, and ground squirrels often major prey; also eats many birds (up to size of pheasant) and reptiles, especially snakes. Sometimes eats bats, frogs, toads, insects, various other creatures; may feed on carrion.


Nesting

In courtship, male and female soar in high circles, with shrill cries. Male may fly high and then dive repeatedly in spectacular maneuvers; may catch prey and pass it to female in flight. Nest site is variable. Usually in tree, up to 120' above ground; nest tree often taller than surrounding trees. Also nests on cliff ledges, among arms of giant cactus, or on artificial structures such as towers or buildings. Nest (built by both sexes) a bulky bowl of sticks, lined with finer materials, often with leafy green branches added.

Text © Kenn Kaufman, adapted from
Lives of North American Birds

Illustration © David Allen Sibley.
Learn more about these drawings.

Migration

Northern Red-tails may migrate far to the south, while many at central or southern latitudes (especially adults) are permanent residents. Most migration is relatively late in fall and early in spring.

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Migration

Northern Red-tails may migrate far to the south, while many at central or southern latitudes (especially adults) are permanent residents. Most migration is relatively late in fall and early in spring.

  • All Seasons - Common
  • All Seasons - Uncommon
  • Breeding - Common
  • Breeding - Uncommon
  • Winter - Common
  • Winter - Uncommon
  • Migration - Common
  • Migration - Uncommon
Songs and Calls
High-pitched descending scream with a hoarse quality, keeeeer.
Audio © Lang Elliott, Bob McGuire, Kevin Colver, Martyn Stewart and others.
Learn more about this sound collection.