Red tailed Hawk

Common Name: Red-tailed Hawk
Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Buteo
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.

photo M. Noonan

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 Hawk Behavior/Reproduction

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 from above.

photo M. Noonan

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.

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.