All About the Red-Tailed Hawk
Secret life of the red-tailed hawk
Red-tailed Hawk on limb, Longmont, Colorado
Humans have been fascinated with birds of prey — eagles, hawks, falcons, owls — for thousands of years. We admire their gracefulness in flight and their skill as hunters. We have even trained some of them to hunt for us. Of all the birds of prey in North America, there are few more widespread or familiar than the red-tailed hawk.
Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) belong to the buteos group (Latin for a type of hawk or falcon), which are large hawks with broad wings designed for soaring. They are commonly found along woodland edges and in open fields. These hawks primarily feed on small and medium-sized mammals and reptiles, although if the opportunity arises, they also will prey on birds, bats and insects. The other major group is called accipiters (Latin for hawk), which are smaller and faster than the buteos, having more rounded wings and long rudderlike tails that allow them to maneuver between trees. The accipiters are mostly inhabitants of the forests, where they feed primarily on birds.
Red-tailed hawks, or redtails, get their name from the red tail feathers found on most adult birds. They are most commonly considered “chicken hawks.” Redtails are one of the most variable hawk species in the Western Hemisphere, with 14 described subspecies — six found in Alaska, Canada and the continental United States, and eight that are native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Islands.
In North America, the three most notable subspecies include the Eastern red-tailed hawk, which typically displays the brick-red tail feathers, dark head and back, and white underneath with a band of dark feathers across the upper belly. A light-colored subspecies called Krider’s hawk, with a white head and tail, inhabits the Great Plains, while a dark subspecies known as Harlan’s hawk lives in Alaska and northwestern Canada, and has uniformly dark body plumage and tail feathers that may vary from gray to red.
Male and female redtails are indistinguishable based on their plumage. Like most birds of prey (or raptors), females are about 25 percent larger than males. Adults reach lengths of more than 18 inches, with a wingspan of up to 4 1/2 feet, making them one of the largest raptors in North America. In spite of their large body size, adult redtails weigh only 3 or 4 pounds at most. Immature redtails do not begin developing their adult plumage (such as the red tail feathers) until their second year. The tail feathers in juveniles are brown with narrow dark bands.
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