Red-tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a large hawk found from western Alaska and northern Canada to Panama and the West Indies. It is one of two species commonly known as the Chickenhawk in the United States.

Birds of this species have a dark mark along the leading edge of the underwing, located between the body and the thin fold of skin between its wing and shoulder. Most but not all color variations have a dark band across the belly. In most, the adults’ tails are rusty red above, and juveniles have narrow brown and pale bands. The main population in western North American has bands on the adults’ rusty tails as well and has varied plumage, organized into three main color types or morphs.

  • Light-morph birds are mainly brown on the upperparts and very pale brown or buff on the underparts and underwings; they show a belly band.
  • Rufous-morph birds are darker and redder, with reddish-brown rather than white on the underparts. The belly band may be barely visible.
  • Dark-morph birds are very dark brown on both upperparts and underparts; they have lighter parts on the underwings.

Almost all of the eastern population is light-morph, with whiter underparts and paler markings than western birds and with solid rust-red tails as adults.

Other variations are:

  • Harlan’s Hawk typically has blackish plumage that contrasts with the white undersides of the flight feathers; the tail may be reddish or grey and is longitudinally streaked rather than barred. It breeds in Alaska and northwestern Canada and winters from Nebraska and Iowa to Texas and northern Louisiana. It is sometimes considered a separate species, Buteo harlani.
  • Krider’s Hawk is paler than other red-tails, most notably on the head. The tail may be pinkish or white. It is mainly found in the central prairies of the United States.

Resident birds in Central America have cinnamon-colored underparts, which enables them to be easily distinguished from the paler-breasted wintering migrants.

They prefer open country with high perches for their breeding habitat. They build a stick nest in a large tree, cactus, or cliff ledge; they may also nest on man-made structures.

In most of the United States, Red-tailed Hawks are permanent residents, but northern breeding birds migrate south in winter. Throughout their range in the U.S., Red-tailed Hawks receive special legal protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Their relationship with humans is fairly complex, capable of both controlling rodent and other mammalian pests, and of on occasion being one, taking valuable fowl (which has led to them being one of the species described as a chickenhawk).

These birds wait on a high perch and swoop down on prey. They may also patrol open areas in flight. Their preferred diet is small mammals, birds and reptiles.

In flight, these birds soar with wings in a slight dihedral, flapping as little as possible. They will also sometimes hover on beating wings and “kite”, or remain stationary above the ground by soaring into the wind.

The Red-tailed Hawk is common and widespread, partly because it has benefited from European settlement. The clearing of trees in the east of North America provided hunting areas, and the practice of sparing woodlots left nest sites. Conversely, the planting of trees in the west provided nest sites where there once had been none. They have also benefited from the construction of highways with treeless medians and shoulders and with utility poles alongside, providing a perfect location for perch-hunting.