This is probably the most common hawk in North America. If you've got sharp eyes you'll see several individuals on almost any long car ride, anywhere. Red-tailed Hawks soar above open fields, slowly turning circles on their broad, rounded wings. Other times you'll see them atop telephone poles, eyes fixed on the ground to catch the movements of a vole or a rabbit, or simply waiting out cold weather before climbing a thermal updraft into the sky.
Size & Shape
Red-tailed Hawks are large hawks with typical Buteo proportions: very broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail. Large females seen from a distance might fool you into thinking you're seeing an eagle. (Until an actual eagle comes along.)
Most Red-tailed Hawks are rich brown above and pale below, with a streaked belly and, on the wing underside, a dark bar between shoulder and wrist. The tail is usually pale below and cinnamon-red above, though in young birds it's brown and banded. "Dark-phase" birds are all chocolate-brown with a warm red tail. "Rufous-phase" birds are reddish-brown on the chest with a dark belly.
You'll most likely see Red-tailed Hawks soaring in wide circles high over a field. When flapping, their wingbeats are heavy. In high winds they may face into the wind and hover without flapping, eyes fixed on the ground. They attack in a slow, controlled dive with legs outstretched – much different from a falcon's stoop.
Red-tailed Hawks are large, sharp-taloned birds that can be aggressive when defending nests or territories. They frequently chase off other hawks, eagles, and Great Horned Owls. Courting birds fly with legs hanging beneath them, or chase and swoop after each other, sometimes locking talons (see Cool Facts). Mated pairs typically stay together until one of the pair dies.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a bird of open country. Look for it along fields and perched on telephones poles, fenceposts, or trees standing alone or along edges of fields.
Red-tailed Hawks occupy just about every type of open habitat on the continent. This includes desert, scrublands, grasslands, roadsides, fields and pastures, parks, broken woodland, and (in Mexico) tropical rainforest.
The Red-tailed Hawk has a thrilling, raspy scream that sounds exactly like a raptor should sound. At least, that's what Hollywood directors seem to think. Whenever a hawk or eagle appears onscreen, no matter what species, the shrill cry on the soundtrack is almost always a Red-tailed Hawk.
Birds are amazingly adapted for life in the air. The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the largest birds you'll see in North America, yet even the biggest females weigh in at only about 3 pounds. A similar-sized small dog might weigh 10 times that.
The "Harlan's Hawk" breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada, and winters on the southern Great Plains. This very dark form of the Red-tailed Hawk has a marbled white, brown, and gray tail instead of a red one. It's so distinctive that it was once considered a separate species, until ornithologists discovered many individuals that were intermediate between Harlan's and more typical Red-tailed Hawks.
Courting Red-tailed Hawks put on a display in which they soar in wide circles at a great height. The male dives steeply, then shoots up again at an angle nearly as steep. After several of these swoops he approaches the female from above, extends his legs, and touches her briefly. Sometimes, the pair grab onto one other, clasp talons, and plummet in spirals toward the ground before pulling away.
Red-tailed Hawks have been seen hunting as a pair, guarding opposite sides of the same tree to catch tree squirrels.
The oldest known Red-tailed Hawk was 28 years 10 months old.
Mammals make up the bulk of most Red-tailed Hawk meals. Frequent victims include voles, mice, wood rats, rabbits, snowshoe hares, jackrabbits, and ground squirrels. The hawks also eat birds, including pheasants, bobwhite, starlings, and blackbirds; as well as snakes and carrion. Individual prey items can weigh anywhere from less than an ounce to more than 5 pounds
Both members build the nest, or simply refurbish one of the nests they've used in previous years. Nests are tall piles of dry sticks up to 6.5 feet high and 3 feet across. The inner cup is lined with bark strips, fresh foliage, and dry vegetation. Construction takes 4-7 days.
Red-tailed Hawks typically put their nests in the crowns of tall trees where they have a commanding view of the landscape. They may also nest on a cliff ledge or on artificial structures such as window ledges and billboard platforms.