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explore Raptors

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Scientific Name:

Buteo jamaicensis

Population Status:

Lower Risk

Body Length:

17 -22 inches

Wingspan:

3 1/2 - 4 1/2 feet

Weight:

1 1/2 - 3 1/4 pounds.

What makes a raptor a raptor?

Research Resources

Did you know?

  • Red-tailed Hawks can range in color from pale brown, to red rufous, to a very dark chocolate brown.
  • In the United States, Red-tailed Hawks are often used in the sport of falconry.
  • Red-tailed Hawks can live for more than 20 years in the wild.

How The Peregrine Fund is helping

Though The Peregrine Fund doesn't work directly with Red-tailed Hawks, our efforts in scientific research, habitat conservation, education, and community development help conserve raptors on a global scale. We also supply literature to researchers from our avian research library, which helps scientists around the world gather and share important information on raptor conservation.

Where they live

The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most widely distributed hawks in North America. Red-tailed Hawks are found throughout much of Canada and the United States and are also scattered throughout Central America and the West Indies. Though they generally don't live in arctic habitats or dense forests, they can be found living in a wide variety of other habitats from open fields to arid deserts, from woody areas and bluffs to mountain, pine and broadleaf forests, and from wetlands to coastal areas. Some individuals have even adapted to living in human-occupied areas. There is a famous pair living atop a high rise building in New York City! The male of this pair, who has been living close to Central Park since the early 1990s is very light in color and is named Pale Male.

As with many other bird species, individuals that live in the northern portion of their range migrate south during the winter in search of warmer climes and a more abundant food base.

What they do

Named for the bright brownish-red feathers on its tail, the Red-tailed Hawk is a common sight in the skies of North America. This large raptor is quite vocal and can often be heard calling as it soars in search of prey. Its call is a loud, high-pitched, hoarse, screaming whistle that might sound very familiar to you, even if you have never seen a Red-tailed Hawk and don't live anywhere near one. This is because the call of this hawk is often the sound used in Hollywood movies and television shows when almost any bird of prey is shown!

This hawk can be be found perching along power poles or even nesting along noisy freeways in many large U.S. cities. However, if you were to try to sneak up to a perched Red-tailed Hawk, it would certainly fly away before you could get too close.

Why they need our help

Like many bird species, the Red-tailed Hawk is protected in North America under the Migratory Bird Act. However, also like many bird species, this beautiful raptor continues to face many threats. In some parts of its range, this bird is killed because it preys on chickens or is captured and held in poor conditions because people mistakenly think it will make a good pet. It doesn't.

Habitat loss, electrocution on powerlines, and collisions at wind farms are other theats to this hawk's survival.

What they eat

Like Barn Owls and Ridgway's Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks consume a lot of rats and mice, which certainly can be beneficial to farmers. But the list doesn't stop there. The Red-tailed Hawk uses its fast flight and large, sharp talons to capture a vareity of different animal species. It feeds on small- to medium-sized mammals, as well as a number of different bird and reptile species. This hawk has been documented eating ground squirrels, rabbits, tree squirrels, bats, quail, other raptors, snakes, lizards and even fish and insects. And the list goes on and on!

As you can imagine, in order to catch such varied prey, Red-tailed Hawks have had to develop and perfect many different hunting techniques. They might swoop down from a high perch to seize their prey, or snatch a bird in flight, or pursue their prey while flying fast and low. If that weren't enough, these hawks are also known to take food from other speices. This is called pirating and involves harrassing the prey-carrying individual until it drops or relinquishes its catch. Then the Red-tailed Hawk confidently moves in and enjoys its meal.

Nest, eggs and young

Like many raptor species, Red-tailed Hawks engage in spectacular courtship displays. The male and female fly together in circles, calling back and forth to each other, and the male often performs dynamic aerial displays of diving and stooping.

Red-tailed Hawk nests can be quite large and are often found in interesting places. They build a stick nest in tall trees and on cliffs but also in cactus or even on man-made structures, such as tall building. They line their nests with pine needles, bark, or other natural plant materials.

The female hawk lays one to five eggs. She is responsible for most of the incubation duties while the male is in charge of bringing food to feed her. The female must incubate her eggs for about one month, usually between 28 and 35 days. After the chicks hatch, they are covered in fluffy white down. The parents must be very diligent about protecting their nestlings as they can fall victim to crows and even Great-horned Owls.

The young hawks grow quickly. They gain weight, grow bigger, and their feathers begin to grow in so that by the time they are around 42 days old, they are ready to fly for the very first time.

After fledging, or flying for the first time, these young hawks must learn to take care of themselves. Though their parents continue to bring them tasty meals and protect them against potential predators, eventually the young hawks must be able to do both these things on their own. Little by little, they begin to learn and at around 4 months after leaving the nest, it is time for them to leave their parents and begin exploring the surrounding areas. If they are able to survive the many hazards that young raptors face, when they are 2-3 years old, these young hawks will be able to find a mate, lay eggs, and raise healthy young chicks on their own.

Idaho Connection

For now, Red-tailed Hawk populations in Idaho are fairly stable. They are widespread throughout the state and can often be seen perched on power poles along roadways or soaring over open fields. A good place to spot these hawks is at The Peregrine Fund´s World Center for Birds of Prey. Red-tailed Hawks like to use our fence posts for perching and can find abundant prey in the sagebrush and grasslands around our facilities. Another great place to visit is the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area located about 30 miles from the World Center for Birds of Prey.

Red-tailed Hawk and The World Center for Birds of Prey

Red-tailed Hawks are quite common around The Peregrine Fund's World Center for Birds of Prey – watch for them as you drive up to the entrance as they are often perched on fence posts or soaring low over the grassy fields on either side of the road. When walking our nature trail, be sure to look for them soaring high in the sky. An interpretive sign at the end of the trail teaches you how to identify a raptor based on its silhouette.


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