At a Glance
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.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Hawk-like Birds, Hawks and Eagles
Coasts and Shorelines, Desert and Arid Habitats, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Forests and Woodlands, Landfills and Dumps, Saltwater Wetlands, Shrublands, Savannas, and Thickets, Tundra and Boreal Habitats, Urban and Suburban Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Soaring
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
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.
18-25" (46-64 cm). W. 4' (1.2 m). On most adults, tail reddish above, whitish below (color shows through in flight overhead). Juvenile's tail brown above, with dark bars. East of the Mississippi, most Red-tails have white chest, dark "belly-band" of streaks. Western Red-tails are much more variable, from pale to rust-brown to blackish. (Some, known as "Harlan's Hawks," are usually dark-bodied and have tail whitish with dark marbling.) On all but the darkest birds, note whitish patches on back. In flight overhead, leading edge of inner wing looks contrastingly dark. Study flight silhouette of "typical" Red-tails for comparison to other hawks.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Brown, Red, White, Yellow
Broad, Fingered, Rounded
Songs and Calls
High-pitched descending scream with a hoarse quality, keeeeer.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Red-tailed Hawk. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Red-tailed Hawk
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.