Red-Tailed Hawk

STATUSLeast Concern


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

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.

Red-tailed hawks are 48 to 65 centimeters in length. Their wingspan is approximately 4 feet. 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 eyes that become dark brown as they get older and they have not acquired the rusty red tail (retrices) feathers yet. The tale feathers usually appear to look dark brown and have bands across the feathers. Tail feathers are also longer and will become shorter when the red tail feathers grow in.

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.

Related To:
Swainson’s Gray, Broad-winged, Red-shouldered, Rough-legged and Ferruginous Hawks.

Habitat/Range:   They are found throughout the US and Canada, and into Mexico and Central America.  Many birds are year round occupants in their habitats although the birds of the far north migrate south during the winter to find food.

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 mountain 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 in Wild:  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.

Red-tailed hawks do most of their hunting from a perch.  They are not known to store food but may eat road kill or a deceased animal if food is scarce.

Diet in Zoo: Commercially raised and humanely killed mice. Frozen packaging not only ensures freshness but also cleanliness.  All of the Education Birds of Prey are not able to hunt on their own due to injuries, so live prey could never be offered. Diet enrichments ensure stimulation for the birds.

 Predators:  As top predators, adult red tail hawks have few natural predators. Eggs and chicks in the nest can be predated by other birds of prey, such as great horned owls or by their own siblings if food is scarce and the adults are unable to hunt enough food for all the young.

 Life Cycle And Social Structure:  Red-tailed hawks usually begin breeding when they are three years old, after they have grown in their red tail. They are monogamous, and mate with the same individual for many years, as long as their mate is alive.

Courtship usually involves the male and female circling together in flight for 10 minutes or more. Mating usually takes place following these flights. The male and female then land on a perch and preen each other, called allopreening.

Red-tailed hawk nests are usually 28 to 38 inches in diameter. They are sometimes used for several years, and can be up to 3 feet tall. The male and female construct the nest together high in a tree.  They are sometimes built on cliff ledges or artificial structures such as on buildings. The nests are constructed of twigs and lined with natural materials such as bark or corn husks. 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 approximately every other day and are incubated for 28 to 35 days. Both parents incubate the eggs. Males may spend less time incubating than females, but bring food to the female while she is on the nest.

The young hatch over the course of 2 to 4 days, and are dependent on their parents at hatching. During the nestling stage, the female broods the young, and the male provides most of the food to the female and the chicks.

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.

Interesting Facts:

  • Red tail hawks 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
  • Broad wings with tips are held out straight to catch the wind
  • 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 Message:
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.

Pale Male:  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.

Habitat destruction is a big concern for red tail hawks. While Pale Male has succeeded in living in a city habitat, most red tail hawks could not adapt to such a different habitat. Red tail hawks rely on open areas to catch the prey they need to feed themselves and their young. As fields and other open areas become parking lots, housing developments, and shopping malls these birds lose their homes as well as their food source. As prime habitats disappear red tail hawks are forced into less favorable areas where their success may be limited. Some red tail hawks will be forced to hunt in more dangerous locations such as along roadways where they may be injured or killed by car strikes while trying to find food.

What You Can Do:
Do not litter. Birds of prey can be seen hunting along highways all over the country which is very dangerous for them, many of them are hit by cars or somehow injured along the roadways.  They are attracted the roadways because their prey is foraging on trash along the roadside. Everyone can make a positive impact by not littering or even volunteering to remove garbage from the roads.  Although many people may not consider apple cores or banana peels to be “litter”, it can still attract animals the roadside. Taking it home and disposing of it properly can help a bird of prey near you.

Shopping from local farms can also help field hunters such as red tail hawks. These birds need open spaces to hunt. When you buy your produce from a local farmer who uses sustainable and ecologically friendly practices you are not only helping your local economy but are also ensuring that birds of prey such as the red tail hawk have places to hunt for their food. The hawks in turn will help the farmers by eating the pest animals such as mice that may forage on the crops.