Red Tailed Hawk Facts
Red-tailed hawks basically make up the poster boys for all hawks in general. They’re so common that when people hear the word ‘hawk’, the image that comes to mind would belong to the red-tailed hawk. They might not even recognize the bird as belonging to the species, but it wouldn’t change the fact. Learn more about this great bird of the Americas with these 50 red-tailed hawk facts.
- Red-tailed hawks can weigh from an estimated minimum of 600 grams to a maximum of 1.6 kg.
- They can measure up to 141 cm wide from the end of 1 wing to the end of their other wing.
- In contrast, their bodies only grow between 45 and 65 cm long.
- Females also tend to grow bigger than males, with up to 25% more weight.
- Red-tailed hawks also have up to 14 different subspecies.
- Fossil evidence points to the red-tailed hawk’s ancestors coming from either Africa or South Asia.
- Scientists consider the red-tailed hawk the result of several million years of evolution.
- Johann Gmelin first named them Falco jamaicensis in 1788.
- He also noted similarities between them and John Latham’s cream-colored buzzard.
- In 1799, Bernard de Lacepede renamed them to the modern Buteo jamaicensis.
- The rufous tailed hawk originally counted as 1 of the red-tailed hawk’s subspecies.
- Modern scientists now consider it a separate, but still closely related species.
- They also once saw the common buzzard as Eurasia’s equivalent to the red-tailed hawk.
- However, all buzzards now have a separate, but still closely related species complex.
- They also have similar relationships with other predatory birds in Africa.
- The difference between hawk and buzzard purely comes from geography.
- Buzzards refer to species living in the Old World of Europe, Asia, and Africa.
- Hawks refer to species living in the New World of North and South America.
- All hawk and buzzard species belong in the genus Buteo.
- The genus includes a total of 29 species all over the world.
Red-tailed hawks have a distinctive appearance.
Their different subspecies vary in the details, of course, but all subspecies have shared traits when it comes to their appearance. First, they all have white underbellies, with a band of dark brown running across their bellies. Adults also all tend to have dark brown napes and heads, with light brown throats. The feathers on their backs also tend to grow darker than most of their feathers, with paler feathers forming a variable V-shaped mark. And, of course, their tails have a uniform brick-red color on top, giving the species their name.
Below their tails, their feathers form a black band against a buff-orange backdrop. Younger red-tailed hawks have paler heads and darker backs than full adults, while their tails start out as light brown that turns red as they grow older. They also have pale wing edges, but all red-tailed hawks have yellow beaks, legs, and feet.
Their weight also sets them apart from their cousins.
Red-tailed hawks make up the heaviest hawks in eastern North America, and second in size only to ferruginous hawks. And while they’re smaller than their Eurasian cousin the rough-legged buzzard, red-tailed hawks still weigh slightly heavier than they do. Amongst themselves, red-tailed hawks from eastern North America have smaller but heavier bodies than those from the west. Also, red-tailed hawks living further north also tend to grow bigger than those living further south. This gives the species the distinction of contradicting Bergmann’s Rule, which states that animals living closer to the equator grow bigger than those living further away.
They also make distinctive sounds.
In particular, the cries they make while out hunting or flying high usually lasts from 2 to 3 seconds long. They also start out with a high pitch, which then abruptly drops, described by some as similar to a steam whistle. They also make the cry when facing a competing predator, or when another hawk enters their territory. This cry has also become the generic cry for birds of prey in general, and commonly gets misattributed to the bald eagle.
In addition to their cry, red-tailed hawks may also make croaking sounds as a warning to potential enemies. Their chicks also make sleepy-sounding peeping noises, as well as two-syllable wails whenever their parents return from a hunt. Adults also make mechanical, water-like sounds, and even chirping, when courting a mate. They may also make duck-like croaking as a sign of relaxation.
Red-tailed hawks live all across the Americas.
In fact, they’re the most distributed birds of prey across the region. Red-tailed hawks live as far north as Alaska, and across Northern Canada, all the way to Quebec. From there, they range south along the Atlantic Seaboard, down to Florida. Along the Pacific, they live in Baja California, and then south, along the Mexican coast. Inland, they range across Mexico and then south to Guatemala and Nicaragua. Red-tailed hawks also live on the various islands of the Caribbean Sea and range inland to Central Panama.
Pale Male became famous for living in New York City.
A red-tailed hawk that first arrived in the city in 1991, bird watchers remember how he tried to build a nest in a tree at Central Park. They also gave him his name from the unusual paleness of his head, which he kept even after becoming a full adult. Local murders of crows forced him out, with Pale Male building his new nest on a building across the street. This made him the first red-tailed hawk to ever build a nest not on a tree, but on a human building.
From 1992 to 2012, Pale Male has had 8 different mates, each with their own name given by bird watchers. He’s had many children with his mates, further adding to his fame for living not just in New York, but founding what his fans call a dynasty of birds native to the city. As of 2021, Pale Male has reached 31 years of age and has not had any chicks for at least 2 years. This has led bird watchers to assume he has lost interest in reproduction at his age. Others have also suggested that Pale Male has died, and a lookalike has replaced him, but no evidence for this has surfaced.
Red-tailed hawks can get conspicuous when living near humans.
In particular, when they’re not flying around, red-tailed hawks will just sit on a perch, staring at anything nearby that catches their interest. They can even do this for hours, though, every now and then, they will stretch out a wing or a limb to keep them from going numb. Less conspicuously, they can also spend hours just flying around, but this still draws plenty of attention, especially in large-scale residential areas.
Other birds also tend to mob red-tailed hawks.
Crows, ravens, and songbirds especially have a habit of mobbing red-tailed hawks to drive out of a local area. This, even though the red-tailed hawk has a bigger size and thus more dangerous than any one of them. This forces the smaller birds to use large numbers to balance out the difference in ability between them. Murders of crows, for example, can reach up to 75 birds, more than enough to overwhelm a single red-tailed hawk if it decides to fight instead of leaving.
Red-tailed hawks actually flap less than people would think for birds.
In fact, they flap their wings as little as possible, to conserve energy. Instead, the red-tailed hawk will soar as much as possible, flapping only every once in a while to maintain its altitude. Even then, the red-tailed hawk can reach speeds of up to 64 kph, though, they can fly at speeds of as low as 32 kph. They only reach their maximum speed when diving, however, at up to 190 kph. At that speed, most preys don’t have a chance to escape the bird’s claws.
They only sometimes migrate with the seasons.
Red-tailed hawks in Alaska and Canada always leave for warmer climes when winter comes. Those birds living along the ocean coasts, however, never leave even in winter, as the ocean winds usually moderate the temperature enough for them to cope. Younger red-tailed hawks living inland may also sometimes try to stay even in winter. Usually, they only do when they seem assured they’ll have plenty of prey over that time. That said, most red-tailed hawks will migrate in autumn, with bird watchers recording up to 15,000 birds in a single migration. In the southernmost areas of the red-tailed hawk’s range, though, such as those in and past Southern Mexico, red-tailed hawks have no need to migrate at all.
Mammals make up most of the red-tailed hawk’s prey.
Rodents, especially, with scientists estimating up to 100 species making up the red-tailed hawk’s main food source. These include chipmunks, groundhogs, hares, marmots, mice, moles, rabbits, rats, voles, and weasels. Squirrels, though, make up the most common prey for red-tailed hawks, with some areas suffering up to 60% of their squirrel population dying as prey in a single season. That said, scientists have noted that attacks on adult marmots and voles don’t always succeed. They’ve also noticed that red-tailed hawks like to diversify their meals, so much so, that it’s rare for a single species to make up even 50% of a single bird’s diet. However, it’s usually the adults who diversify their meals, with younger red-tailed hawks known to focus on a single species for food.
They sometimes hunt other birds too.
They don’t actually go out of their way to hunt other birds, but when the opportunity shows, they take it. Flightless birds usually make up the prey in these cases, such as chickens, and even turkeys. Red-tailed hawks also sometimes prey on flying birds, usually smaller ones such as grouses, quails, and woodpeckers. Bigger flyers may also become prey, such as cranes, geese, herons, and swans. Crows also sometimes become prey for red-tailed hawks, along with cuckoos, doves, jays, kingfishers, parrots, and even pigeons.
They may also sometimes prey on reptiles.
Red-tailed hawks don’t usually hunt reptiles, but when no other food becomes available, they do what they have to. Snakes make up their most common reptilian prey, such as the gopher snake, in particular. This is despite the fact that gopher snakes can grow quite large and are able to reach weights of over 500 grams. Other snakes they feed on include colubrid snakes, as well as garter snakes. Red-tailed hawks usually avoid poisonous snakes, but records exist of birds spotted hunting rattlesnakes. In the tropics, though, lizards make up large parts of the diet of local red-tailed hawks. Iguanas of various species, most commonly, but they also feed on other tropical reptiles such as turtles.
Scientists have also rarely observed red-tailed hawks hunting other kinds of prey.
They’ve seen the birds hunting amphibians, usually toads, but hard evidence has proven difficult to find. This comes from the fact that amphibian bones tend not to survive getting digested, leaving no traces in the birds’ droppings. Other amphibians they feed on include salamanders and bullfrogs. Red-tailed hawks also rarely prey on insects and other invertebrates, with only younger ones doing so as the equivalent of light snacks between hunts. These include beetles, crabs, crickets, and even spiders. Fish, though, make up the rarest of prey for red-tailed hawks, with very few records existing of red-tailed hawks hunting them. Instead, they usually scavenge the leavings of other animals, the remains of carp, catfish, even koi, and salmon.
They have a distinctive hunting style of their own.
The birds cruise in the air over their hunting grounds, usually at heights of between 10 and 50 meters high. Every once in a while, they’ll fly low to try and scare possible prey out, but spend most of the hunt in the air. Scientists actually see this as inefficient compared to other hunting methods, unless done over hilly ground. Red-tailed hawks might also hide in bushes, or behind trees and rocks, before diving out to snatch prey. Smaller prey gets swallowed whole, and even live, while bigger prey gets torn apart before the red-tailed hawk actually starts to eat.
They also compete against other predators for prey.
Their fellow hawks make up their main competitors, usually sharing up to 90% of their dietary preferences. This contributes to their territorial attitudes, to keep other hawks from stealing their food. Owls also share the red-tailed hawk’s dietary preferences but have fewer conflicts with them. This comes from the fact that owls tend to have nocturnal lifestyles, while red-tailed hawks prefer to stay awake during the day. This, in turn, leads to less competition between the two species.
Red-tailed hawks also surprisingly coexist well with mammalian predators, such as the lynx, again despite their shared diets. This comes from the differences in their hunting styles, which again leads to less competition between them.
Red-tailed hawks mate for life.
Unlike other animals that mate for life, red-tailed hawks often find another mate if their previous mate dies. Also, even when mated, red-tailed hawks still go through courtship rituals during the breeding season. Common gestures between mates usually involve extending a leg into the open air or touching each other’s wings. They may also perform sky dances, with the male starting by flying high with exaggerated beats of his wings. Once he reaches his maximum height, he half-folds his wings, then dives steeply only to level out and climb back into the sky. Occasionally, a male will dive less steeply, and instead rollercoaster repeatedly across the sky. Sky dances usually take place on the edges of a mated pair’s territory, with red-tailed hawks often dancing in parallel to each other.
They may also sometimes reuse their nests.
In fact, many red-tailed hawks use the same nest for several years running, while others abandon their nest to build new ones every year. Some red-tailed hawks even leave their nest for a year or more, only to come back and reuse it afterward. This means that when it comes to building their nests, red-tailed hawks build them as sturdily as they can. Twigs remain their main building material, with the birds lining the interior with more plant material, such as bark, pine needles, and even corn cobs, among others. They usually build their nests on tall trees, at least 4 meters above the ground, though records of nests at heights of 21 meters exist. Red-tailed hawks also sometimes build on human buildings and even position their nests to deliberately avoid the wind.
Females lay distinctive eggs.
They have mostly white shells, with light to heavy markings in pale red-brown, or even dark brown and purple. Females can lay up to 3 eggs per season, which take around a month to hatch. After their eggs hatch, the female stays in the nest to watch over the chicks, while the male hunts for food to bring back. The parents work together to tear the meat into smaller pieces, which they then feed to their chicks.
Chicks take about a month and a half to grow into young birds able to fly, though, they remain with their parents. It takes the young birds about 3 weeks to fully master flight, while also beginning to hunt on their own. Young red-tailed hawks typically don’t leave to find territories of their own until they reach between 4 and 6 months of age.
Red-tailed hawks also like to keep their nests clean.
For one thing, they’ll never leave any droppings in their nests. Also, red-tailed hawks only let uneaten meat stay in their nests for 2 days at most, before throwing it away. This keeps the meat from rotting and potentially giving them diseases.
Other birds may adopt abandoned red-tailed hawk chicks.
Here’s a touching example of Red-tailed Hawk Facts. Bald eagles, in particular, with scientists observing cases of mated bald eagles finding abandoned red-tailed hawk chicks, and taking them back to their nests. Said chicks quickly become accepted by their adopted siblings and parents both. Despite having greater competition from the fact that bald eagles have a greater size than red-tailed hawks, the adopted bird not only survives but outright thrives.
Young red-tailed hawks have their own habits.
They are more sociable compared to adults, with young red-tailed hawks fresh out of the nests gathering together in a single area. They also prefer to avoid confrontations with older birds, whether others of their kind or other predatory birds. In fact, when they spot an older predatory bird nearby, a young red-tailed hawk will usually look for a place to hide. Young red-tailed hawks may also suffer from overconfidence, attacking prey too big for them, though, they quickly learn to pick their fights.
Jamaican red-tailed hawks make up the poster boys for the species.
Scientifically known as Buteo jamaicensis, they live in the West Indies region of the Caribbean Sea. That region includes the countries of Hispaniola, Jamaica, and the microstates of the Lesser Antilles. The US territory of Puerto Rico also lies in this region, and all boast significant populations of the Jamaican red-tailed hawk. Their name comes from the island of Jamaica, where scientists first observed the species. The subspecies also has the distinction of the smallest of its kind, measuring at most around 70 cm from one wing’s end to the other. Their weight also maxes out at around only 1 kg.
Western red-tailed hawks have the widest breeding range for the species.
In fact, the subspecies breeds over an estimated 75% of the collective species’ breeding range in North America. In the north, they range from Alaska, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories, to Sonora in Mexico and to the south. Their range also stretches east of Manitoba in Canada, and west, to the US states of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Utah. Western red-tailed hawks also have darker colors compared to other subspecies, while their tails feature black crossbars against their characteristic brick-red.
The Tres Marias red-tailed hawks live solely on the Islas Marias.
The Islas Marias makes up four islands off the west coast of Mexico, cut off from the mainland by a distance of 100 km. Native Americans never settled the islands before Europeans arrived, with modern Mexico using the islands as a prison until 2019. This isolation and lack of human presence allowed the Tres Marias red-tailed hawks to flourish on the island. They appear similar to western red-tailed hawks, but have smaller bodies, typically measuring only around 80 cm from one wing’s end to the other.
Similarly, the Mexican Highlands red-tailed hawks live solely on the Mexican Highlands.
This subspecies remains controversial among many scientists, who believe it should count as a separate species of its own. Size-wise, the Mexican Highlands red-tailed hawk has a similar build to the Tres Marias red-tailed hawk. However, this subspecies features a distinctive series of brick-red bars along its sides and belly. Their most distinctive feature lies in their feet, though, which measure up to 10% bigger than those of other subspecies. Their scientific name even reflects this, Buteo jamaicensis hadropus, with hadropus literally meaning big feet.
Other subspecies with similar locales include the Cuban, Florida, and Socorro red-tailed hawks.
Like their names imply, these subspecies all live in specific locales, such as the islands of Cuba and Socorro, and the US state of Florida. That said, they do have distinctive traits, such as the Florida red-tailed hawk, which has chestnut-colored patches on its sides. The Socorro red-tailed hawk also has a darker brown color compared to other subspecies and also has the distinction of the least common subspecies of them all. In particular, scientists today estimate that only 20 adult birds make up the subspecies.
This actually has many other scientists argue that the Socorro red-tailed hawk doesn’t count as a proper subspecies, but just a local mutation of another subspecies. The Cuban red-tailed hawk has a similar reputation, having a similar color scheme to the Florida red-tailed hawk. It does have a smaller size, though, measuring only 80 cm from one wing’s end to the other. In contrast, the Florida red-tailed hawk can measure up to 86 cm from one wing’s end to the other.
Red-tailed hawks can suffer from a variety of diseases.
Here’s a concerning example of Red-tailed Hawk Facts. They prove vulnerable to bacterial infections, which cause diseases such as granulamotous, mycobacteriosis, myocarditis, peritonitis, and sarcocystosis, among others. Viral infections also affect red-tailed hawks, though, these usually occur among younger members of the species. And even then, it results from their immune systems getting weakened by exposure to weather extremes, such as lack of shelter during heavy rain. Surprisingly enough, red-tailed hawks do not suffer from DDT or other forms of pesticide exposure.
Red-tailed hawks make up a common animal for falconry practitioners.
In the USA, at least, where falconry exists under heavy legal regulations, apprentices commonly start with the red-tailed hawk. This results from the bird’s sociable disposition compared to other birds, with only Harris’ Hawk having more social skills. Red-tailed hawks also live longer, over 30 years with good care, and even have strong immune systems. They’re also native to North America, removing any concerns about introducing a potentially invasive species like when importing birds from other countries. And with only around 5000 falconers in the USA, domestication for falconry has minimal effects on their population, which scientists estimate at around 1 million.
Their feathers also have importance to Native Americans.
They used them in religious ceremonies, as well as material for making traditional clothing. Tail feathers, especially, prove in high demand in Native American communities across North America.
They also enjoy various protections under the law.
There’s the Migratory Bird Act, which makes it illegal to catch, hunt, kill, and sell red-tailed hawks. The law’s protection also extends beyond the birds, to their nests, eggs, and even their feathers. That said, exceptions do exist, such as for falconry, as we mentioned earlier, and of course, research purposes. Native Americans also have permission to collect and use feathers from the red-tailed hawk, under the Eagle Feather Law.