Red-Tailed Hawk

STATUSLeast Concern

COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Buteo jamaicensis

DIETSmall rodents, mammals as large as eastern cottontail rabbits, reptiles and other birds

RANGENorth America, Mexico and Central America

HABITATScrub desert, plains, grasslands, agricultural fields, pastures, urban parks, woodlands, and tropical rainforests

Red-Tailed Hawk

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Program and General Information

There are at least 14 subspecies of Buteo jamaicensis. These subspecies are separated based on differences in their color and differences in where they breed and spend the winter.

They are diurnal (active during the day) and most individuals migrate seasonally, some as far south as Jamaica (like the species name suggests)

The most common call of a Red-Tailed Hawk is often heard while the bird is soaring and sounds like a hoarse screaming noise (kee-eeeee-ar).The call usually only lasts 2 to 3 seconds.

Common Physical Features

Red-tailed hawks are 48 to 65 centimeters in length. Their wingspan is approximately 4 feet, or 122 centimeters. Their underbelly is lighter than the rest of the body, with a dark band across it. The cere (the soft skin at the base of the beak), the legs and the feet are all yellow. The tail is brownish-red, and it is this trait that gives red-tailed hawks their name.

Females and males are similar in appearance, but females are 25% larger than males. This kind of sexual dimorphism, where females are larger than males, is common in birds of prey. Red-tailed hawks range from light auburn to deep brown in color.

Immature red-tailed hawks look similar to adults. Immatures usually have yellowish-gray eyes that become dark brown as adults and have not acquired the rusty red tail (retrices) feathers yet, they usually appear to look dark brown.

Habitat and Global Range

Native only to the Nearctic region. They are found throughout the US and Canada, and into Mexico and Central America. Many birds are year round occupants although the birds of the far north migrate south during the fall to escape the harsh winter.

Red-Tailed Hawks inhabit a wide range of habitats over a wide range of altitudes. These habitats are typically open areas with scattered, elevated perches, and include scrub desert, plains, and montane grasslands, agricultural fields, pastures, urban parks, patchy coniferous and deciduous woodlands, and tropical rainforests. Red-tailed hawks prefer to build their nests at the edge of forests, in wooded fence rows, or in large trees surrounded by open areas.

Diet

Red-tailed hawks feed on a wide variety of prey (opportunistic predators/ carnivores), using their powerful claws, called talons, as weapons. Eighty to eighty-five percent of their diet consists of small rodents. Mammals as large as eastern cottontail rabbits may also be taken. Reptiles and other birds make up the rest of the diet. Male red-winged blackbirds are common prey because they are so visible when guarding their nests.

Behavior and Life Cycle

RTHs usually begin breeding when they are 3 years old. They are monogamous, and mate with the same individual for many years, only change mates if their original mate dies. During courtship, the male and female soar together in circles. Mating takes place following these flights. The male and female land on a perch and preen each other, called allopreening. The female then tilts forward, allowing the male to mount her.

RTH nests can be up to 3 feet tall. The male and female construct the nest in a tall tree, a cliff ledges, or a building. The nests are made of twigs and lined with bark, pine needles, and other soft plant matter. Fresh bark, twigs, and pine needles are deposited into the nest throughout the breeding season to keep the nest clean.

The female lays 1 to 5 eggs around the first week of April. The eggs are laid and incubated for 28 to 35 days. Both parents incubate the eggs. Males may bring food to the female while she is on the nest. The young are altricial at hatching. During the nestling stage, the female broods the young, and the male provides most of the food. The female feeds the nestlings by regurgitating her food.

The chicks begin to leave the nest after 42 to 46 days. After they leave the nest, young red-tailed hawks usually stay in one place, close to their parents. They begin to fly about 3 weeks after they first begin to leave the nest, and begin to catch their own food 6 to 7 weeks after that. They become completely independent from their parents by about 10 weeks after fledging, at about 112 to 116 days old.

Fun Facts

  • Have binocular vision (both eyes are located on front of the head and focus on the same thing).
  • Eyesight is about 7 times better than humans
  • Flight speed = 50-60 m.p.h.; stoop (dive) up to 90 m.p.h., soaring/gliding on thermals (rising hot air)
  • Broad wings with tips are held out straight to catch the wind
  • Have thin, air-filled bones, which decrease flight weight
  • May have different nests in their territory and will rotate their use from year to year
  • Red-tailed Hawks have been seen hunting as a pair, guarding opposite sides of the same tree to catch tree squirrels.

Conservation Messaging

Important Predators: Hawks like other birds of prey are very important predators. Hawks consume small rodents which keeps the pest population low. They are very beneficial to farmers and our ecosystems.

DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane): DDT was a pesticide used in the United States, which was banned in 1972, that caused serious negative environmental affects (human effects on an ecosystem: anthropogenic affects). It was sprayed on crops to prevent consumption from pests and leached into waterways and soil substrates. DDT was then absorbed into small organisms. Once those small organisms were consumed by larger animals, working its way up the food chain to birds of prey like hawks, eagles, falcons, and ospreys. DDT actually became more concentrated as it worked its way up the food chain. This is called bio-magnification. It was absorbed into fatty tissue and didn’t kill the birds but created a calcium deficiency. The lack of calcium caused the egg shells to be very thin so that when adults went to incubate their eggs the eggs would break. For several generations these birds couldn’t reproduce. This led to the ban of DDT in United States and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring which helped lead the environmental movement. SSPs can also be tied in, a lot of reintroduction efforts took place to help repopulate our parks (Peregrine Funds hacking program). DDT is still used in other countries and is still found in our ecosystems today. Luckily a lot of Birds of Prey have made a comeback, like red tailed hawks. The Bald Eagle has been removed from the national endangered species list (over 10,000 individuals).

Pale Male: http://www.palemale.com/ Pale Male is a red tail who made his home in the middle of Manhattan amongst the hustle and bustle of NYC. He’s lived there successfully with his mate, Lola, since the early ‘90s. It’s easy to tie in habitat (food: pigeons, water, shelter (open large nest on a high rise), and lots of space (not much competition from other predators)) or environmental law (International Migratory Bird Treaty Act) and why NYC residents could not deter Pale Male from making Manhattan his new home. This is a great example of how well red tails have adapted to living in and around people.