Common Name: Red-tailed Hawk
Species: Buteo jamaicensis
Red-tailed Hawk Taxonomy/Description
photo M. Noonan
The red-tailed hawk belongs to the
family, Accipitridae, in the Avian Order Falconiformes.
Other members of Accipitridae, which includes most
diurnal birds of prey, are eagles, harriers, kites, and
Old World vultures. Its scientific name is Buteo
jamaicensis means "a hawk or falcon belonging to
Jamaica". However, the red-tailed hawk's range is not
limited to the West Indies.
As members of the genus Buteo,
red-tailed hawks are classified by their large size and
broad wings and tail. Red-tailed hawks are the largest
hawk species, with wingspans of about 56 inches, and
weighing 2-4 pounds. Although great variation in color
exists among red-tailed hawks, general coloration does
exist. The tops of their wings and body are dark brown.
Their underside is lighter in color, usually white or
tan. The tail for which they are named is reddish brown
in color. Juveniles differ slightly in color from
adults, lacking the distinct red tail feathers. Red
feathers will molt in during the hawk's second year.
Red-tailed Hawk Habitat/Diet
Red-tailed hawks are widespread
across North America, ranging from Alaska to Panama, and
even some islands of the Caribbean. The red-tailed hawk
is very versatile, inhabiting mountains, forests, and
grasslands, at varying heights in elevation. All but the
driest deserts, coldest tundra, and thickest forests are
inhabited by the red-tail. The elevation at which the
red-tailed hawk lives is relative to the climate of the
region. They are found at lower elevations in the cooler
temperate areas of the United States and Canada than in
the more tropical regions of Central America.
Red-tailed hawks feed on a variety
of small animals, including rodents, lizards, snakes,
and birds. Small rodents compose 85-95% of the hawk's
diet. Hawks hunting in areas with large pheasant
populations yield diets high in pheasant. A red-tailed
hawk's eyesight is eight times more powerful than a
human's eyesight. This allows the hawk to notice any
slight movements from prey while soaring at high
altitudes. Once the hawk has spotted potential prey, it
swoops down to grasp the animal with its sharp talons.
Red-tailed hawks are extremely
territorial. Hunting, nesting, and mating all take place
on the same guarded territory, which can be as large as
3 square miles. Females primarily defend the nesting
areas, while males defend the hunting grounds. An ideal
hawk territory should include tall trees for nesting or
perching, and open grasslands so the hawks may view prey
Breeding season begins in early
spring. During this time male and female red-tailed
hawks engage in brilliant aerial displays. These
courtship rituals include a variety of acrobatic dives
and barrel rolls by both sexes. Once mates have been
chosen, the hawks form a very strong and long-lasting
pair bond. Both members of the breeding pair construct
and maintain the nesting site. The nests are usually
large and flat, and built at heights of 25-75 feet.
Branches and twigs 1/2 inch in diameter provide the
foundation for the nest. Red-tailed hawks ruse their
nests, repairing any damage caused from storms or wind,
and annually add new layers.
One to three bluish-white, spotted
eggs are laid. They are incubated primarily by the
female for 28-32 days. She does not leave the nest.
During this time the male hunts for his mate, as well as
himself. Once the eggs hatch, both parents will provide
the chicks with food. The chicks, covered in white down,
will remain in the nest for 45 days. Shortly after the
chicks learn to fly, they will leave the nest
permanently. Their parents will still look after them
until late autumn. Red-tailed hawks do not breed until
their third year.
Red-tailed Hawk Conservation
All birds of prey are protected by
federal law. This includes all species of owls, eagles,
falcons, vultures, and hawks native to the United
States. The red-tailed hawk is threatened by human
encroachment, due to its need for wooded areas.
Electrical wires may electrocute hawks and other
raptors. Raptor safe electrical lines have been
developed, and older wires unsafe for raptors are
currently being updated to meet new standards. Despite
the destructive actions of humans, the red-tailed hawk
is the most common and widespread hawk in North America,
and is found in all lower 48 states.