Lake Milton Raptor Center

Red Tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis
Red Tailed Hawk Red Tailed Hawk Red Tailed Hawk Red Tailed Hawk Red Tailed Hawk

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Aves
  • Order: Falconiformes
  • Family: Accipitridae
  • Genus: Buteo
  • Species: Buteo jamaicensis
  • Geographic Range

    The red-tailed hawk is found throughout the United States and Canada, into Mexico and Central America. Many birds are year round occupants although the birds of the far north will migrate south during the fall to escape the harsh winter.

    Physical Characteristics

    The red-tailed hawk averages 19 to 24 inches in length. There is sexual dimorphism in size: females are 25% larger than the males. Plumage ranges from light auburn to deep brown. The underbelly is distinctly lighter than the rest of the body, with a dark belly band across it. The cere, the soft skin at the base of the beak, the legs, and the feet are all yellow. The eye color of the hawk changes from yellowish gray when immature to dark brown in adults.

    Natural History

    Food Habits

    Red-tailed hawks feed on a wide variety of prey, using their powerful claws as weapons. 80 to 85% of their diet consists of small rodents. Mammals as large as the eastern cottontail may be taken also. Reptiles and other birds consist of the rest of their diet. Male red-winged blackbirds are often eaten because of their open visability when guarding their nests.


    Red-tails usually begin breeding when they are three years old. Red-tails tend to be monogamous, only finding a new mate when theirs dies. A sure sign of breeding in the spring is that the male and female perch in the same tree to hunt. During courtship the birds soar near each other in circles with flights lasting 10 minutes or more. Mating ususally takes place following this. They both land on a perch and preen each other. The female then proceeds to tilt forward, allowing the male to mount. Copulation usually lasts 5 to 10 seconds.

    The nests are usually 28 to 38 inches in diameter. They are sometimes used year after year and can be up to 3 feet tall. Both birds construct the nest using deciduous trees approximately 4 to 21 m above the ground. The nests are constructed of twigs while the lining consists of pine needles and bark. Fresh bark, twigs, and pine needles are deposited into the nest throughout the year to keep the nest clean. Owls compete with the red-tails for nest sites. Each species is known to feed on the young of the other in order to take the nest site.

    One to five eggs are laid around the first week of April. The eggs are incubated for about 30 days. Both parents help to incubate the eggs. Males may bring food to the female while on the nest. The young hatch at intervals of 1 to 2 days. Parents have to rip food up for them initially, and later leave it in the nest. The yound are fledged around 45 days.


    Red-tailed pairs will remain together for years in the same territories. These birds are very territorial. Their territories can range in size from half a square mile to over 2 square miles depending on food, perches, and nesting sites. The female is usually the more aggressive partner around the nest itself, whereas the male is more aggressive when it comes to the territory boundaries. The birds will soar over their territory, mostly on clear days, looking for intruders. The red-tail has a series of aerial behaviors. In the talon-drop, during courtship, they swoop down trying to touch one another with their talons. Undulating-flight is an up and down movement that is mainly used in territorial behavior. Finally, in the dive-display the bird performs a steep dive. This is also mainly used in territorial flights.


    The red-tailed hawk builds its nest at the edge of a forest, in wooded fence rows, or in large trees surrounded by open areas. Their main territory consists of large woodlots surrounded by open fields and pastures for foraging. In northern parts of the range they like to stay near coniferous trees. However, further south they stay around deciduous trees.

    Biomes: tropical deciduous forest, temperate forest & rainforest, temperate grassland

    Economic Importance for Humans


    The red-tailed hawk has helped farmers by eating mice and moles, along with other rodents that disturb crops.


    Status: no special status

    In the 1980's the estimated population of red-tailed hawks was 350,000 based on North American winter populations. This hawk is now bountiful, making a tremenduous comeback from the days when it was drastically hunted. Red-tails have nested sucessfully in both suburban and urban areas and along highways helping to increase its numbers.

    Other Comments

    Red-tails are very susceptable to albinoism.

    Red-tails will often use powerlines as perches.

    The red-tail is often the victim of car accidents, shooting, and steel traps.

    Red-tails are a sign of good luck in the Mescalero Apache tradition (Louie Chavez, personal communication).