Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

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Red-tailed hawk with prey in beak
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Red-tailed hawk fact file

Red-tailed hawk description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderFalconiformes
FamilyAccipitridae
GenusButeo (1)

One of North America’s most widespread and common hawks, the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is easily identified by the red upper surface of its broad tail. Most red-tailed hawks have rich brown upperparts and pale underparts, with a streaked belly and a dark bar on the underside of the wing. However, this species varies greatly across its range, with up to 16 subspecies recognised by various authorities (2) (3)

Almost all subspecies of the red-tailed hawk have some red in the tail, but this is variable with age, and they are usually distinguished instead by colouration of the underparts, the tail markings, and size. Some populations also have ‘dark-phase’ birds, which are all chocolate-brown excluding the red tail, and ‘rufous-phase’ birds, which are reddish-brown on the chest with a dark belly (2) (3) (4) (5)

Immature red-tailed hawks also vary in appearance, but are usually brown above and white below, with heavy spots and streaks. The tail is grey-brown with slight banding. As the immature hawks change to the adult plumage, their tail feathers drop out and are replaced by red ones, while the rest of the feathers also turn more reddish. Immature red-tailed hawks begin to obtain adult plumage in their second year (5)

Red-tailed hawks are usually seen soaring in wide circles high over fields, slowly turning on their broad, rounded wings. They may face into the wind to hover, with their eyes fixed on the ground. The wing beats appear heavy when flapping. This species attacks prey in a slow, controlled dive with the legs outstretched (4).

Also known as
California hawk, chicken hawk, Cooper’s buzzard hawk, Fuertes’ hawk, Harlan hawk, Harlan’s hawk, hen hawk, Krider’s hawk, red hawk, red-tail.
Size
Male length: 54 - 60 cm (2)
Female length: 50 - 65 cm (2)
Wingspan: 105 - 135 cm (2)
Male weight: 690 - 1,300 g (2)
Female weight: 900 - 1,460 g (2)
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Red-tailed hawk biology

Scanning fields from a perch or while soaring high in the air, the red-tailed hawk mainly hunts for rodents and other small mammals, which may comprise as much as 75 percent of its diet. It also eats birds, snakes and carrion (4) (5). The red-tailed hawk varies its hunting strategy depending on the prey type. It may approach indirectly from behind the cover of trees or bushes, or perch and look disinterested in prey until its target’s attention is distracted, at which point it attacks quickly and fiercely (5)

The red-tailed hawk breeds in the early spring, with the exact timing varying with latitude (5). It is at this time that this species displays its acrobatic expertise, performing elaborate courtship displays. Pairs soar in wide circles at a great height, before the male dives steeply then shoots up again at an angle nearly as steep. After several of these swoops, the male approaches the female from above, extends the legs and touches the female briefly. Sometimes the pair clasp talons and plummet in spirals toward the ground before pulling away (4)

Red-tailed hawks breed for life, although a partner is soon replaced if it dies (3). Both adults cooperate to build a nest in the crown of a tall tree, which gives them a commanding view of the landscape. Pairs may also simply repair a nest used during previous seasons. The nest is a tall pile of dry sticks,with the inner cup lined with bark strips, fresh foliage, and dry vegetation. 

During nesting, red-tailed hawk pairs are extremely territorial and aggressively drive predators or intruders away from the nest site (3) (4). Usually 2 or 3 eggs are laid and incubated for 28 to 35 days. The chicks fledge at 42 to 48 days, but stay with the adults for a further 30 to 70 days before becoming fully independent. Most red-tailed hawks first breed at two years of age (2).

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Red-tailed hawk range

The red-tailed hawk ranges from Central Alaska, south through the US to Mexico and the lowlands of Central America. It has recently been recorded wintering as far south as Costa Rica, western Panama, Colombia and Venezuela. The red-tailed hawk is also native to several Caribbean islands, from Cuba to the US Virgin Islands (3)

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Red-tailed hawk habitat

Occupying just about every type of open habitat in its range, the red-tailed hawk can be found in desert, scrubland, grassland, roadsides, fields, pastures, parks and broken woodland. However, it is typically associated with open areas which are interspersed with woodland, and is generally absent from large expanses of treeless terrain and from dense forest (3) (4).

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Red-tailed hawk status

The red-tailed hawk is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1)

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Red-tailed hawk threats

Historically the red-tailed hawk was threatened by human persecution, as it was perceived as a predator of livestock. However, a decline in shooting pressure in the middle of the 20th century caused the species to expand its range, as did the opening of dense forests by logging and the expansion of open, wooded parklands. It has also benefited from a growth in agricultural activities, as it prospers near human dwellings, provided there is adequate open space, perch sites for hunting and tall trees or other structures for nesting (3)

The red-tailed hawk is now extremely common and is perhaps the most commonly seen bird of prey in the western hemisphere. Its population is thought to be stable and extremely large, possibly numbering in the low millions. However, red-tailed hawk numbers are declining slightly in the mixed-woodland plains of far eastern Canada, and it suffers high losses from a combination of illegal persecution, road collisions, electrocution and contamination from toxic pollutants elsewhere. However, the severity of these threats is unclear (3).

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Red-tailed hawk conservation

Although the red-tailed hawk is not the target of any known conservation measures, its populations are monitored during several annual bird surveys. Continued raptor education efforts and rigorous law enforcement are also critical for this species’ conservation, if the threat of persecution is to be minimised. Human activity around red-tailed hawk nests should also be carefully monitored and possibly managed (3).

ARKive is supported by OTEP, a joint programme of funding from the UK FCO and DFID which provides support to address priority environmental issues in the Overseas Territories, and Defra
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Find out more

Learn more about raptor conservation:

More information on the red-tailed hawk and other bird species:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Carrion
The flesh of a dead animal.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
Territorial
Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliot, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of Birds of the World. Volume 2: New World Vultures to Guineafowl. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Preston, C.R. and Beane, R.D. (2009) Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). In: Poole, A. (Ed) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca: Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/052/articles/introduction
  4. All About Birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Red-tailed hawk (February, 2011)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-tailed_Hawk/
  5. Oregon Zoo – Red-tailed hawk (February, 2011)
    http://www.oregonzoo.org/Cards/BirdsOfPrey/redtailedhawk.htm
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Image credit

Red-tailed hawk with prey in beak  
Red-tailed hawk with prey in beak

© Jim Zipp / www.ardea.com

Ardea wildlife pets environment
59 Tranquil Vale
London
SE3 0BS
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 208 318 1401
ardea@ardea.co.uk
http://www.ardea.com

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