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.
Red-tailed hawk habitat
Red-tailed hawks are found in a wide range of habitats — forests, deserts, prairies and even urban areas. This species requires tall structures on which to perch, search for prey and construct nests. Nest construction begins in late winter or early spring. Nests are made of sticks and twigs, and are about 30 inches wide and 4 or 5 inches deep. The hawks place them in trees, on ledges or man-made structures, as long as that site provides a good view of the surrounding area. The same nest may be reused for several years by a mated pair of redtails, being refurbished and added to every nesting season until it reaches several feet across.
As with many other raptors, red-tailed hawks tend to mate for life. Male courtship displays often involve dramatic aerial acrobatics. Sometimes the female joins the male in these courtship flights. The mated pair establishes a territory, varying in size from one-half square mile to more than 2 square miles, depending on the availability of prey and perching sites. They remain on this territory their entire lives, and both birds defend it vigorously.
Around March or April, the female lays two to four dull white eggs at two-day intervals. The incubation period for each egg is about four weeks. As soon as the first egg is laid, incubation begins, which means the first egg will hatch first, and each additional egg will hatch a day or two later. Both parents care for the young; the female sits on the eggs while the male hunts. After hatching, the female remains with the young birds while the male continues to provide food.
The young hawks remain in the nest for 40 to 50 days before they are ready to fly. After fledging (acquiring the necessary feathers to make their first flight), they will remain near the nest for a few more weeks. They will not be fully mature and ready to breed for another two years.
Red-tailed hawk hunting and behavior
Red-tailed hawks are “generalists” when it comes to food preferences. They will eat pretty much anything they can catch — the usual bill of fare is small to medium-sized mammals. Redtails also feed on reptiles, birds and carrion when the opportunity presents itself — and they are not averse to stealing prey from other hawks. Their selection of prey depends on what is most available in their territory, but studies show mammals make up as much as 95 percent of their diet.
Unlike the accipiter hawks, which actively pursue their prey, red-tailed hawks search for prey by either soaring lazily above a field or meadow, or by perching in an elevated location until they spot a potential meal, at which time they swoop in for the kill at speeds up to 120 mph. A mated pair may even work together to make a kill. Like other raptors, this species has very keen vision; they are able to spot small rodents in dense cover up to 100 feet away.
The kill is made with the sharp talons, or claws. Small animals may be swallowed whole, while the hawks tear the larger ones into small pieces using their beaks. Indigestible materials are compressed into pellets and periodically regurgitated.
Red-tailed hawks in the northern part of their range, such as the northern Great Plains, Canada and Alaska, migrate to central and southern parts of North America in late autumn. Redtails in the southern part of their range do not migrate, although they may make short movements between seasons, depending on prey availability.
Status and conservation
Since red-tailed hawks prefer to hunt in relatively open areas, they are one species of raptor that benefits from the clearing of dense forests for farms and pastures. They will even hunt and live in suburban and urban areas. Red-tailed hawks, like all birds of prey, are protected by federal law in the United States and by most state laws.
Shooting has become less of a threat to these birds that were once potential predators of domestic animals. No longer known as “chicken hawks,” the red-tailed hawk is increasingly appreciated as a graceful hunter and welcomed partner in the control of rodents; on the farm and everywhere else.
John Marshall lives in Benton, Arkansas, and enjoys studying Mother Nature’s creatures.