The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most common hawk in North America, and can be easily identified by its red tail feathers. Though it is large for a hawk, at only 2 feet long with a 4 foot wingspan, the red-tailed hawk is significantly smaller than eagles or ospreys.
As the red-tailed hawk is a bird of prey, it possesses powerful talons and a sharp beak for hunting. Red-tails have typical hawk proportions with large, rounded wings and a broad, short tail. Their feathers tend to be darker brown on the top of their body and mainly pale on the underside, with distinctively red tail feathers and dark bars on the leading edges of their wings. Most female red-tailed hawks are about 25% larger than males and can weigh up to four and a half pounds.
Red-tailed hawks can be found throughout virtually all of North America, with the exception being large areas of heavy, unbroken woods. Red-tailed hawks prefer open ground as it suits their hunting style. They can often be spotted sitting in trees, on fence posts or utility poles scanning the ground for the small mammals they hunt. Incredible flyers, these hawks will also hunt by soaring high above a field, using their keen eyesight to spot prey. Their broad wings allow them to stay aloft with minimum effort, riding thermal updrafts to soar for long periods of time.
Typical soaring and flying speed for a red-tailed hawk is 20-40 mph; however, in a dive when hunting, the birds can exceed 120 mph. The prey animals most commonly caught are mice, voles, squirrels and rabbits. However, red-tailed hawks are also capable of preying upon birds such as starlings and blackbirds mid-flight. Jackrabbits that weigh up to twice that of the hawk are also taken, but unlike larger raptors red-tailed hawks are too small to pose any threat to children or pets. The main competitor and only true natural predator of red-tailed hawks is the great horned owl, which has been known to attack the hawk and its nest, as well as compete for food.
When red-tailed hawks reach 2 years of age they are mature enough to find a mate. The hawks often perform elaborate courtship flights and once paired will stay together for life. The pair will construct a stick nest in a large tree, cliff ledge or building. These nests are generally over three feet in diameter and three feet tall. The female with lay 1-3 eggs in the spring and spend most of her time incubating the eggs for about a month, with the male bringing her food during that time. When the nestlings are born they are essentially helpless, and for the first 42-46 days of life they will be dependent upon their father to bring them food and their mother to feed them. After this period they will spend the next 3 months learning to fly and hunt with their parents before striking off on their own. Average lifespan for these birds is 13-20 years
Being as the red-tailed hawk is an open-country hunter, the parks and greenways of urban and suburban areas make an ideal habitat for them and they are known nesting in and around New York City’s Central Park. They are also quite popular with falconers, being the most widely-used birds for the sport in the United States.
RED-TAILED HAWK FACTS
- Pale Male is the name of the most famous red-tailed hawk. He has lived in New York City’s Central Park since 1991.
- The red-tailed hawk has a very intimidating cry. So much so, its call is often used in movies and commercials when showing bald eagles.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Wild Bird Watching