Red-tailed hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

The red-tailed hawk is one of the most common large, broad-winged hawks in North America. Its range is from Alaska and northern Canada south to Central America. Red-tailed hawks live in a variety of habitats: open country, scrub, woodlands, rocky canyons, coastlines, prairies and deserts. Like all raptors, they are carnivores.

Hawk lingo

  • Buteo: a genus of hawk characterized by broad wings and soaring behavior
  • Accipiter: a genus of hawk characterized by short wings and a long tail

Did you know?

  • The red-tailed hawk call is commonly used in television and movies to represent the vocalizations of other birds, including vultures and eagles.

Red-tail behavior and facts

  • Red-tailed hawks are opportunistic, preying on a broad variety of animals: insects, rats, mice, squirrels, reptiles and other birds. About 75 percent of their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals. This flexibility in diet contributes to their successful adaptation to many types of ecosystems.
  • Like other buteos, the red-tailed hawks hunting style allows them to expend less energy when hunting. They scan for prey from either a soaring or perched position, and then move in for the kill. For unwary prey like mice, red-tailed hawks may fly openly from perch to perch. For more alert prey, a red-tailed hawk approaches indirectly from behind the cover of trees and bushes. Then the hawk attacks quickly, and may even pursue prey over short distances.
  • Plumage in red-tailed hawks is highly variable, and includes nine recognized color morphs. Generally, adult red-tailed hawks have a broad, fan-shaped tail with a red upper surface. Typically, backs and upper wing surfaces are dark gray or reddish brown, streaked and barred with lighter colors. In a lighter color phase, adult breasts are cream colored and streaked with brown. There may also be a darker band across the belly. Dark phase birds may have red or black bellies, breasts, or wing linings.
  • There are nearly a dozen subspecies of red-tailed hawks; six are recognized in the US.
  • When threatened by an intruder, a red-tailed hawk won't usually stay to defend its nest. They are generally shy and nonaggressive toward people, and are commonly attacked (but usually not injured) by crows, magpies, owls, other hawks and even songbirds over territorial disputes.
  • The call of the red-tailed hawk is a series of long, drawn-out raspy screams. In flight, they will make a high-pitched "skeeeer;" at close range a croaking "guh-runk." Birds frequently call while soaring.

Vital statistics

  • Females: 21 to 25 inches long, 2.5 to 3.5 pounds, with a 4-foot wingspan
  • Males: 19 to 24 inches long, 2 to 2.5 pounds, with a 3.5- to 4-foot wingspan

From birth to death

  • Red-tailed hawk courtship displays are exhibitions of strength and flying ability. The male flies high, then cartwheels towards the ground. Sometimes the female joins him in the air, where they tumble before breaking apart and regain flight. Paired red-tailed hawks may display courtship behavior throughout spring, even after their young are hatched. Red-tailed hawks may return to the same mate year after year, but if one bird dies, the mate finds another.
  • Nests are built on the forest edge, on the horizontal limb of a tall tree, close to the trunk. If no tall tree is available, these hawks may use a smaller tree, cliff edge or hole in rocks. As with most buteos, red-tailed hawks may have more than one nest and alternate nests from year to year. If the breeding in one nest is unsuccessful, the pair may abandon it.
  • After both mates build the nest, a clutch of two to four eggs is laid in March and early April.
  • The female incubates the eggs for approximately 30 days while the male provides her, and later the chicks, with food.
  • Red-tailed hawks bring fresh green foliage to the nest throughout this period, possibly for shade for the young, to prevent or reduce insect pests, to improvement sanitation or simply for aesthetics.
  • Fledging typically occurs around 42 to 46 days
  • Red-tails gain adult plumage by age 2
  • Lifespan: average six to seven years, up to 16 years in the wild; 35 years in captivity

Status

Red-tailed hawks are probably the most commonly seen Western bird of prey. They do suffer losses from ranchers and farmers who, not realizing their great benefit in controlling rodents, shoot them off telephone poles.

Red-tailed hawks, the Oregon Zoo and you

Sundance the red-tailed hawk is part of the zoo's Wild Life Live! show. A boy in Arizona found an egg and brought it to a veterinarian to help him identify it. Sundance, the hatchling inside, was moved to various places and during that period she became too adapted to human contact to survive in the wild. Sundance came to Oregon in 1993, and can be seen performing in the zoo's summer free-flight bird shows.