Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

name = Red-tailed Hawk
status = LC
status_ref= cite web|url=|assessors=BirdLife International|title="Buteo jamaicensis"|accessmonthday=20 June|accessyear=2007]

regnum = Animalia
phylum = Chordata
classis = Aves
ordo = Falconiformes
familia = Accipitridae
genus = "Buteo"
species = "B. jamaicensis"
binomial = "Buteo jamaicensis"
binomial_authority = (Gmelin, 1788)
synonyms ="Buteo borealis" "Buteo broealis" ("lapsus")

The Red-tailed Hawk ("Buteo jamaicensis") is a medium-sized bird of prey, one of three species colloquially known in the United States as the "chickenhawk," though it rarely preys on chickens. It breeds almost throughout North America from western Alaska and northern Canada to as far south as Panama and the West Indies, and is one of the most common buteos in North America. There are fourteen recognized subspecies, which vary in appearance and range. It is one of the largest members of the genus "Buteo" in North America, typically weighing from 690 to 1600 grams (1.5 to 3.5 pounds) and measuring 45–65 cm (18 to 26 in) in length, with a wingspan from 110 to 145 cm (43 to 57 in). The Red-tailed Hawk displays sexual dimorphism in size, as females are about 25% heavier than males.

The Red-tailed Hawk occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous forests, tropical rainforests, agricultural fields and urban areas. It lives throughout the North American continent, except in areas of unbroken forest or the high arctic. It is legally protected in Canada, Mexico and the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Because they are so common and easily trained as capable hunters, the majority of hawks captured for falconry in the United States are Red-tails. Falconers are permitted to take only hawks in their first year. Adults, which may be bred, are not permitted to be taken for falconry. Falconers prefer to train first year hawks, which have not been locked into uncooperative adult behaviors.

The Red-tailed Hawk also has significance in Native American culture. Its feathers are considered sacred by some tribes, and are used in religious ceremonies.


A male Red-tailed Hawk may weigh from 690 to 1300 grams (1.5 to 2.9 pounds) and measure 45–56 cm (18 to 22 in), while a female can weigh between 900 and 2000 grams (2 and 4.4 pounds) and measure 50–65 cm (20 to 26 in) in length. As is the case with many raptors the Red-tailed Hawk displays sexual dimorphism in size, as females are 25% larger than males. The wingspan is from 110 to 145 cm (43 to 57 in).

Red-tailed Hawk plumage can be variable, depending on the subspecies and the region. These color variations are morphs, and are not related to molting.

The western North American population, "B. j. calurus", is the most variable subspecies and has three color morphs: light, dark, and intermediate or rufous. The dark and intermediate morphs constitute 10–20% of the population.

Though the markings and hue vary, the basic appearance of the Red-tailed Hawk is consistent. The underbelly is lighter than the back and a dark brown band across the belly, formed by vertical streaks in feather patterning, is present in most color variations. The red tail, which gives this species its name, is uniformly brick-red above and pink below. The bill is short and dark, in the hooked shape characteristic of raptors.cite web|url=|title="Buteo jamaicensis" |publisher=U.S. Geological Survey|accessmonthday=5 June|accessyear=2007] The cere, the legs, and the feet of the Red-tailed Hawk are all yellow. cite web|url=|author=Dewey, T. and D. Arnold|title="Buteo jamaicensis"|accessmonthday=5 June|accessyear=2007]

Immature birds can be readily identified at close range by their yellowish irises. As the bird attains full maturity over the course of 3–4 years, the iris slowly darkens into a reddish-brown hue. In both the light and dark morphs, the tail of the immature Red-tailed Hawk are patterned with numerous darker bars.


The Red-Tailed Hawk is a member of the genus "Buteo", a group of medium-sized raptors with robust bodies and broad wings. Members of this genus are known as "buzzards" in Europe, but "hawks" in North America.cite web|url=|title=Buteo jamaicensis|publisher=ITIS|accessdate=June 10|accessyear=2007]

There are at least 14 recognized subspecies of "Buteo jamaicensis", which vary in range and in coloration:
*"B. j. jamaicensis", the nominate subspecies, occurs in the northern West Indies, including Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles but not the Bahamas or Cuba. El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico holds the highest known density of Red-tailed Hawks anywhere. []
*"B. j. alascensis" breeds (probably resident) from southeastern coastal Alaska to the Queen Charlotte Islands and Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
*"B. j. borealis" breeds from southeast Canada and Maine south through eastern Texas west to northern Florida. It winters from southern Ontario east to southern Maine and south to the Gulf coast and Florida.
*"B. j. calurus" breeds from central interior Alaska, through western Canada south to Baja California. It winters from southwestern British Columbia southwest to Guatemala and northern Nicaragua. Paler individuals of northern Mexico may lack the dark wing marking.cite book | author=Howell, Steve N. G.;Sophie Webb | title=A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America | publisher=Oxford University Press | year=1995 | id=ISBN 0-19-854012-4]
*"B. j. costaricensis" is resident from Nicaragua to Panama. This subspecies is dark brown above with cinnamon flanks, wing linings and sides, and some birds have rufous underparts. The chest is much less heavily streaked than in northern migrants ("B. j. calurus") to Central America.
*"B. j. fuertesi" breeds from northern Chihuahua to southern Texas. It winters in Arizona, New Mexico, and southern Louisiana. The belly is unstreaked or only lightly streaked, and the tail is pale.
*"B. j. fumosus" Islas Marías, Mexico
*"B. j. hadropus" Mexican Highlands
*"B. j. harlani" usually has blackish plumage contrasting with white undersides of the flight feathers; the tail may be reddish or gray and is longitudinally streaked rather than barred. The dark wing marking is not distinct. It breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada and winters from Nebraska and Kansas to Texas and northern Louisiana.
*"B. j. kemsiesi" is a dark subspecies resident from Chiapas to Nicaragua. The dark wing marking may not be distinct in paler birds.
*"B. j. kriderii" is paler than other Red-tails, especially on the head; the tail may be pinkish or white. In the breeding season, it occurs from southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan, southern Manitoba, and extreme western Ontario south to south-central Montana, Wyoming, western Nebraska, and western Minnesota. In winter, it occurs from South Dakota and southern Minnesota south to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Louisiana.
*"B. j. socorroensis" Socorro Island, Mexico
*"B. j. solitudinus" Bahamas and Cuba
*"B. j. umbrinus" occurs year-round in peninsular Florida north to Tampa Bay and the Kissimmee Prairie. It is similar in appearance to "calurus"

The four island forms, "jamaicensis", "solitudinus", "socorroensis", and "fumosus", do not overlap in range with any other subspecies.

Distribution and habitat

The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most widely distributed hawks in the Americas. It breeds from central Alaska, the Yukon, and the Northwest Territories east to southern Quebec and the Maritime Provinces of Canada, and south to Florida, the West Indies, and Central America. The winter range stretches from southern Canada south throughout the remainder of the breeding range.cite web|url=|title=Buteo jamaicensis|publisher=U.S. Department of Agriculture|author=Tesky, Julie L.|accessdate=June 10|accessyear=2007]

Its preferred habitat is mixed forest and field, with high bluffs or trees that may be used as perch sites. It occupies a wide range of habitats and altitudes, including deserts, grasslands, coniferous and deciduous woodlands, tropical rainforests, agricultural fields and urban areas. cite web|url=|assessors=BirdLife International|title="Buteo jamaicensis"|accessmonthday=20 June|accessyear=2007] It is second only to the Peregrine Falcon in the use of diverse habitats in North America.cite web
last =Garrigues
first =Jeff
title =Biogeography of Red-tailed hawk
publisher =San Francisco State University Department of Geography
accessmonthday=28 June
url =
] It lives throughout the North American continent, except in areas of unbroken forest or the high Arctic.cite web|url=|title=Red-tailed Hawk|publisher=Bureau of Land Management|accessdate=June 6|accessyear=2007]

The Red-tailed Hawk is widespread in North America, partially due to historic settlement patterns, which have benefited it. The clearing of forests in the Northeast created hunting areas, while the preservation of woodlots left nest sites. The planting of trees in the west allowed the Red-tailed Hawk to expand its range by creating nest sites where there had been none. The construction of highways with utility poles alongside treeless medians provided perfect habitat for perch-hunting. The Red-tailed Hawk can also be found in cities. cite web|url=|title=Red-tailed Hawk||accessmonthday=16 June|accessyear=2007] The non-fiction book "Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park" by Marie Winn made Pale Male, a Red-tailed Hawk in New York, the most famous urban Red-tailed Hawk. cite web|url=|publisher=CBS|author=Geist, Bill|title=In Love With A Hawk|accessmonthday=17 June|accessyear=2007]


In flight, this hawk soars with wings in a slight dihedral, flapping as little as possible to conserve energy. Active flight is slow and deliberate, with deep wing beats. In wind, it occasionally hovers on beating wings and remains stationary above the ground. When soaring or flapping its wings, it typically travels from 20 to convert|40|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on, but when diving may exceed convert|120|mi/h|km/h|abbr=on. cite web|url=|author=Day, Leslie|publisher=79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society|title=The City Naturalist - Red Tailed Hawk|accessmonthday=17 June|accessyear=2007] When the Red-tailed Hawk walks, its steps are slow and awkward.

The Red-tailed Hawk is generally non-aggressive toward people and toward other birds. It is commonly harassed by crows, magpies, owls, other hawks, and even songbirds over territorial disputes, though it is generally not injured. When threatened by a human intruder, a Red-tailed Hawk will generally flee rather than defend its nest.

The cry of the Red-tailed Hawk is a two to three second hoarse, rasping scream, described as "kree-eee-ar", which begins at a high pitch and slurs downward This cry is often described as sounding similar to a steam whistle. It frequently vocalizes while hunting or soaring, but vocalizes loudest in annoyance or anger, in response to a predator or a rival hawk's intrusion into its territory. At close range, it makes a croaking "guh-runk". cite web|url=|publisher=Oregon Zoo|title=Red-Tailed Hawk|accessmonthday=16 June|accessyear=2007] Young hawks may utter a wailing "klee-uk" food cry when parents leave the nest. cite web|url=|publisher=The Hawk Conservancy Trust|title=Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis|accessmonthday=5 June|accessyear=2007]

Because of its robust crispness, a certain recording of the cry of the Red-tailed Hawk is a cliché cinematic sound effect. This high, piercing scream is often featured in the background of adventure movies to give a sense of wilderness to the scene. However, the cry is often inaccurately used for the Bald Eagle, whose own vocalizations are quite different and less robust.


The Red-tailed Hawk is carnivorous, and an opportunistic feeder. Its diet is mainly small mammals, but it also includes birds and reptiles. Prey varies with regional and seasonal availability, but usually centers on small rodents. Additional prey include rabbits, snakes, waterfowl, bats, shrews, crustaceans, insects, rodents, and fish.

The Red-tailed Hawk hunts primarily from an elevated perch site, swooping down from a perch to seize prey, catching birds while flying, or pursuing prey on the ground from a low flight.

Prey range in size from beetles to White-tailed Jackrabbits, which are double the weight of most Red-tails. In captivity in winter, an average Red-tail will eat about 135 g (4-5 oz) daily. The Great Horned Owl occupies a similar ecological niche nocturnally, taking similar prey. Competition may occur between the Red-tailed Hawk and the Great Horned Owl during twilight.


The Red-tailed Hawk reaches sexual maturity at two years of age. It is monogamous, mating with the same individual for many years. In general, the Red-tailed Hawk will only take a new mate when its original mate dies.cite book
last =Terres
first =John K.
authorlink =John Kenneth Terres
title =The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds
publisher =Knopf
date =1980
location =New York, NY
pages =1109
doi =
id =ISBN 0394466519
] The same nesting territory may be defended by the pair for years. During courtship, the male and female fly in wide circles while uttering shrill cries. The male performs aerial displays, diving steeply, and then climbing again. After repeating this display several times, he sometimes grasps her talons briefly with his own. Courtship flights can last 10 minutes or more. Copulation often follows courtship flight sequences, although copulation frequently occurs in the absence of courtship flights.

In copulation, the female, when perched, tilts forward, allowing the male to land with his feet lodged on her horizontal back. The female twists and moves her tail feathers to one side, while the mounted male twists his cloacal opening around the to the female's cloaca. Copulation lasts 5 to 10 seconds and during pre-nesting courtship in late winter or early spring can occur numerous times each day.cite web|url=|title="Buteo jamaicensis" | |accessmonthday=7 June|accessyear=2007] In the same period, the pair constructs a stick nest in a large tree 4 to 21 m off the ground or on a cliff ledge 35 m (115 ft) or higher above the ground, or may nest on man-made structures. The nest is generally 71 to 97 cm (28 to 38 inches) in diameter and can be up to 90 cm (3 ft) tall. The nest is constructed of twigs, and lined with bark, pine needles, corn cobs, husks, stalks, aspen catkins, or other plant lining matter.

Great Horned Owls compete with the Red-tailed Hawk for nest sites. Each species has been known to kill the young and destroy the eggs of the other, but in general, both species nest in adjacent or confluent territories without conflict. Great Horned Owls are incapable of constructing nests and typically expropriate existing Red-tail nests. Great Horned Owls begin nesting behaviors much earlier than Red-tails, often as early as December. Red-tails are therefore adapted to constructing new nests when a previous year's nest has been overtaken by owls or otherwise lost. New nests are typically within a kilometer or less of the previous nest. Often, a new nest is only a few hundred meters or less from a previous one.

A clutch of 1 to 3 eggs is laid in March or April, depending upon latitude. Clutch size depends almost exclusively on the availability of prey for the adults. Eggs are laid approximately every other day. The eggs are usually about 60 x 47 mm (2.4 x 1.9 in). They are incubated primarily by female, with the male substituting when the female leaves to hunt or merely stretch her wings. The male brings most food to the female while she incubates. After 28 to 35 days, the eggs hatch over 2 to 4 days; the nestlings are altricial at hatching. The female broods them while the male provides most of the food to the female and the young, which are known as eyasses (pronounced "EYE-ess-ess"). The female feeds the eyasses after tearing the food into small pieces. After 42 to 46 days, the eyasses begin to leave the nest on short flights. The fledging period lasts up to 10 weeks, during which the young learn to fly and hunt.

Relationship with humans

The Red-tailed Hawk has a complex history with humans. The name "chickenhawk" was applied to the Red-tailed Hawk in earlier times, when free-ranging chickens and other domestic fowl were occasionally taken by these birds. First-year Red-tails, usually in late summer or early fall, were the most guilty of such predation. After mid-summer, adults seldom provide food for newly-hunting young Red-tails, and easily-captured, flightless chickens at a farmstead were frequent targets. Today, Red-tails and other hawks are universally protected by state, provincial, and federal bird protection laws.

Use in falconry

The Red-tailed Hawk is a popular bird in falconry, particularly in America where the sport of falconry is tightly regulated at the federal and state levels. There are fewer than 4,000 falconers in the United States, therefore any effect on the Red-tailed Hawk population, estimated to be approximately one million in the United States, is statistically insignificant. cite web|url=|publisher=Department of the Interior: Fish and Wildlife Service|title=Migratory Bird Permits; Changes in the Regulations Governing Falconry; Notice of Intent To Prepare an Environmental Assessment for Falconry and Raptor Propagation Activities; Proposed Rule and Notice|accessmonthday=14 June|accessyear=2007]

The Red-tailed Hawk is adaptable and useful in modern falconry. It is a powerful and sturdy falconry bird best flown at larger ground quarry such as squirrels, rabbits, and jackrabbits. Occasionally, the Red-tailed Hawk may even take a pigeon, crow, or duck,

In the course of a hunt, a falconer using a Red-tailed Hawk most commonly releases the hawk and allows it to perch in a tree or other high vantage point. The falconer, who may be aided by a dog, then attempts to flush prey by stirring up ground cover. A well-trained Red-tailed Hawk will follow the falconer and dog, realizing that their activities produce opportunities to catch game. Once a raptor catches game, it does not bring it back to the falconer. Instead, the falconer must locate the bird, "make in," and trade the bird its kill in exchange for a piece of ready-to-eat meat, which is generally from a previous kill.cite book| last =McGranaghan| first =Liam J.| title =The Red-Tailed Hawk: A Complete Guide to Training and Hunting North America's Most Versatile Game Hawk.| publisher =Western Sporting Publications| date =2001| pages =181| id =ISBN 0-9709571-0-6]

Feathers and Native American use

The feathers and other parts of the Red-tailed Hawk are considered sacred to many American indigenous people and, like the feathers of the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle, are sometimes used in religious ceremonies and found adorning the regalia of many Native Americans in the United States; these parts, most especially their distinctive tail feathers, are a popular item in the Native American community. cite web|url=|author=Collier, Julie|title=The Sacred Messengers|publisher=Mashantucket Pequot Museum|accessmonthday=20 June|accessyear=2007] As with the other two species, the feathers and parts of the Red-tailed Hawk are regulated by the eagle feather law, cite web|url=
title=TITLE 50--Wildlife and Fisheries|publisher=Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR)|accessmonthday=20 June|accessyear=2007
] which governs the possession of feathers and parts of migratory birds. cite web|url=|author=Cook, Stephen|title=Feather Law|publisher=Mashantucket Pequot Museum|accessmonthday=20 June|accessyear=2007]



External links

* [ Webcam of Red-tailed Hawk nest on Channel 2-KJRH tower in Tulsa, OK]
* [ Cornell University Ornithology Lab page about the Red-tailed Hawk, including samples of their cry]
* [ USGS web page about the Red-tailed Hawk]
* [ Red-Tailed Hawks Pictures]
* [ South Dakota Birds - Red-tailed Hawk Information and Photos]
* [ Religious Freedom with Raptors]
* [ North American Falconers Association]
* [ Comparison of Adult & Immature tails]
* [ Discussion of Krider's and Harlan's forms and identification issues]
* [ Red-tailed Hawks of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge]
* [ Photo Field Guide on Flickr]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Red-tailed hawk — Red tailed Red tailed ( t?ld ), a. Having a red tail. [1913 Webster] {Red tailed hawk} (Zo[ o]l.), a large North American hawk ({Buteo borealis}). When adult its tail is chestnut red. Called also {hen hawck}, and {red tailed buzzard}. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • red-tailed hawk — [red′tāld΄] n. a large, North American hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) having a reddish tail and wing feathers that are dark brown on the upper side but light colored on the underside …   English World dictionary

  • red-tailed hawk — red′ tailed hawk′ n. orn a common North American hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, with whitish underparts, a dark back, head, and wings, and a reddish brown tail • Etymology: 1795–1805, amer …   From formal English to slang

  • red-tailed hawk — noun dark brown American hawk species having a reddish brown tail (Freq. 1) • Syn: ↑redtail, ↑Buteo jamaicensis • Hypernyms: ↑hawk • Member Holonyms: ↑Buteo, ↑genus Buteo …   Useful english dictionary

  • red-tailed hawk — jamaikinis suopis statusas T sritis zoologija | vardynas atitikmenys: lot. Buteo jamaicensis angl. red tailed hawk vok. Rotschwanzbussard, m rus. краснохвостый сарыч, m pranc. buse à queue rousse, f ryšiai: platesnis terminas – tikrieji suopiai …   Paukščių pavadinimų žodynas

  • red-tailed hawk — /red tayld / a North American hawk, Buteo jamaicensis, dark brown above, whitish with black streaking below, and having a reddish brown tail. See illus. under hawk. [1795 1805, Amer.] * * * …   Universalium

  • red-tailed hawk — noun Date: 1805 a widely distributed chiefly rodent eating New World hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that is usually mottled dusky above and white streaked dusky and tinged with buff below and has a rather short typically reddish tail called also… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • red-tailed hawk — noun A medium sized bird of prey found throughout North America. Syn: chickenhawk …   Wiktionary

  • Red-shouldered Hawk — Taxobox name = Red shouldered Hawk status = LC | status system = IUCN3.1 image width = 300px regnum = Animalia phylum = Chordata classis = Aves ordo = Falconiformes familia = Accipitridae subfamilia = Accipitrinae genus = Buteo species = B.… …   Wikipedia

  • Red-tailed — ( t?ld ), a. Having a red tail. [1913 Webster] {Red tailed hawk} (Zo[ o]l.), a large North American hawk ({Buteo borealis}). When adult its tail is chestnut red. Called also {hen hawck}, and {red tailed buzzard}. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

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