The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common bird of prey in the United States. Its success could be attributed to its adaptability. In this post, we will find out why it is so common, how it lives and what sounds it makes.
Red-tailed Hawk Facts
When I visited the United States to go birding for the first time, the Red-tailed Hawk was the first bird of prey I saw. It was a bedraggled bird, sitting in the rain just staring at me. I fell in love with it straight away – perhaps because I was pretty wet as well.
I didn’t know what species it was when I took this picture but I felt sure it was something special.
The Red-tailed Hawk would be very tricky to identify if it wasn’t for that striking red tail. It has a wide range of plumages ranging from dark to light morphs. Even then, however, young birds do not have a red tail, so there always seems to be something to throw us off. Throughout this section, I will include some images showing these different plumages.
So, let’s start at the beginning. The Red-tailed Hawk’s scientific name is Buteo jamaicensis. As such, it is a member of the Accipitridae family of Hawks, Eagles and Kites. There are 70 genera (groups) in this family and 249 individual species. The Red-tailed Hawk is not a ‘true’ hawk and birds from the Buteo family in other countries are called buzzards. Semantics aside (and the bird world is full of naming inconsistencies!), we know it and love it as the Red-tailed Hawk. The classification problems with birds is for another post.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a typical Buteo hawk in that it has broad wings and a relatively short but wide tail. Going as wide as we can, there is a light morph (photo above) and a dark morph (photo further up). You can see that the dark morph has a dark head but pale underneath whereas the light morph has a reddish head and pale underneath. Below is what could be classed as something in between, being a light brown.
In all cases, the red tail is the best way to identify this hawk.
While the appearance of the Red-tailed Hawk is similar across the sexes, the female is larger than the male.
- Length: 17.7-22.1 in (45-56 cm)
- Weight: 24.3-45.9 oz (690-1300 g)
- Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)
- Length: 19.7-25.6 in (50-65 cm)
- Weight: 31.8-51.5 oz (900-1460 g)
- Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in (114-133 cm)
The Red-tailed Hawk is widespread across continental America, north into Canada and Alaska and south into Central America.
Although it looks on the migration map below that many of the Red-tailed Hawk stay in the same place all year round, it actually means that they are seen throughout the central purple swathe.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a short to medium distance migrator. This means that birds that breed in Canada and Alaska will move south during the winter months, populations in the north of the U.S. will move to southern states and those in southern states will move to Central America. It is a complex migration pattern and will be affected by the weather.
The Red-tailed Hawk prefers to nest and breed in forests but has adapted to deserts, open areas and more urbanized regions. Ideally, breeding areas would be next to open fields and grasslands for it to hunt. In non-breeding and migration periods, it is generally hunting over open lands. This is probably why it is so often seen perched on utility and fence poles along the roadside.
Where the Red-tailed hawk has a good visibility of the ground below, it will perch, wait and scan for prey. In more forested areas, it will circle and scan. Its broad wings make it difficult for it to hunt in flight so it generally relies on its keen eyesight and the element of surprise.
It commonly takes the following prey:
- small mammals like rodents and small birds
- medium sized mammals like hares and pheasants
- reptiles like snakes
- other small prey like amphibians, insects and bats
Most Red-tailed Hawks lay their eggs in mid to late March in new or refurbished nests. Usually, they will lay 2-3 eggs and incubate them for around 4 weeks. It will take around 6 weeks for the chicks to grow big and strong enough to leave the nest and they will remain close to the parents and sporadically fed for another 3 weeks.
What sounds does the Red-tailed Hawk make?
Like all birds, the sounds of the Red-tailed Hawk are either verbal to communicate with those around it or non-verbal like wing beats or bill clapping. Birds communicate with their mates for encouragement or reassurances (and the odd occasion of begging), with their chicks for much the same reasons and with other birds, usually to communicate about territory.
Here are some of the noises made by the Red-tailed Hawk.
This scream of a call has been likened to that of a steam train whistle and I can see why. It may be used for a number of reasons from territory defending to a perceived threat. Here are a couple of variations.
Calls between a pair of adults
These following calls are between pairs that are either in courtship or have already mated.
This is a call similar to the first couple but was recorded as the bird was in flight.
These calls are of young birds, doing what they do best – begging.
So there you have all the information about the Red-tailed Hawk. If you are struggling to identify one because you can’t see its tail, then listen to its call. If it sends shivers down your spine then chances are, its a Red-Tailed Hawk.
Considering it is our most common bird of prey and so often seen in rural areas, it is a beautiful bird with lots of interesting things to learn about it. We hope you enjoyed our post!
Some people believe that this hawk symbolizes power and courage.
The Red-tailed Hawk has a grip strength of around 200 pounds per square inch . The human bite is about 120 pounds per square inch.
The Peregrine Falcon holds the record for the fastest bird on earth at 200 miles per hour when diving but the Red-tailed Hawk is still up there at around 120 miles per hour.