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Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-Tailed Hawk
Buteo jamaicensis
(Order Falconiformes; Family Accipitridae)

Adult Red-Tailed Hawk in flight. Photo courtesy of:

Adult Diagnosis:  The wingspan of a red-tailed hawk can range from 105-141 cm (41-56 in).  The tail is usually in the range of 19-25 cm (7.5-9.8 in).  This species of hawk has a mean weight of 1,030 g (2.3 lb).

Often times Red-Tailed Hawks are brown above and pale below.  There is a dark bar between the shoulder and wrist.  The tail is red above and pale below.  In juveniles the tail is brown and banded.  In Kansas, a regional morphotype is referred to as the "Krider's Hawk." This morphotype has a whitish head and washed-out pink on the tail.  There is sexual-dimorphism among the species, with males usually weighing 25% less than the females.  Distinct differences between the sexes only include size and do not include plummage.

Morphotypes of the Red-Tailed Hawk. Illustration courtesy of:

Adult Natural History:  Red-tailed hawks can be found in both open and wooded areas.  These hawks are known to sometimes migrate in the winter and other times remain in place.  Nesting occurs from the early spring to the early summer and the females usually lay two eggs.  Red-tailed hawks are monogamous, remaining with the same mate. The hatchlings arrive mid-May or early June after an incubation period of about one month.  Nests can be found in either trees or cliffs, depending on the area.  If the bird does migrate, which it often does, it leaves in early October.

Distribution: The red-tailed hawk breeds from central Alaska east to southern Quebec and south to Florida and central America.  The winter range extends from southern Canada to throughout the remainder of the breeding range.  This makes the red-tailed hawk one of the most widely distributed hawks in North America.

Distribution of the Red-Tailed Hawk. The breeding range is represented by the rusty-red color.  The year-round range in blue.  The red-tailed hawk winters outside of North America.  (Photo courtesy of:

Habitat:  The red-tailed hawl prefers mixed forest and field.  The hawk perches on trees, good look-out spots for potential prey.  Habitat for nesting also includes woodlands near open fields.  The hawk can be found in a wide-range of areas, from farmland to more urban cities.  

Diet:  The red-tailed hawk is a carnivore and its diet consists mainly of small mammals, reptiles, and other birds.  Mice comprise the largest part of the hawk's diet, with rodents as a whole making up nearly 85% of its diet.  They have even been known to prey on small dogs, domestic cats, and wild turkeys, with the prey sometimes weighing double that of the hawk.  

While perched on an elevated site, the hawk will swoop down and catch the prey with its sharp talons.  The Red-Tailed Hawk is a skilled hunter, able to catch birds in flight.  The Red-Tailed Hawk and Great Horned Owl compete and occupy similar ecological niches, however, different breeding seasons and activity times means there are usually no direct altercations.

Red-Tailed Hawk in pursuit of prey. Photo courtesy of:

Conservation Status:  Least Concern

Video:  Red-tailed hawks are aggressive, large-taloned birds. You have likely heard raspy scream many times if you have ever seen a movie with any hawk or eagle in it. Hollywood directors seem to think they all sound the same. To be fair, it does sound pretty awesome: "" 


Life history

Photo gallery  

Nesting habits   



Gatto, Angela E.; Grubb, Teryl G.; Chambers, Carol L. (2006). "Red-tailed Hawk dietary overlap with Northern Goshawks on the Kaibab Plateau, Arizona" (PDF). Journal of Raptor Research 39 (4): 439–444.

Terres, John K. (1980). The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf. p. 1109. ISBN 0-394-46651-9.

Walter Feller. "Red-tailed Hawk"Desert Wildlife. Digital-Desert. Retrieved 16 May 2011.

Submitted by:  Michael O'Connell, August 2013

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