Tuesday 18 June
Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
Red-tailed hawk fact file
- Find out more
- Print factsheet
Red-tailed hawk description
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.
- 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)
The Peregrine Fund:
- The flesh of a dead animal.
- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- 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.
- Describes an animal, a pair of animals or a colony that occupies and defends an area.
IUCN Red List (February, 2011)
- 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.
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:
All About Birds: Cornell Lab of Ornithology – Red-tailed hawk (February, 2011)
Oregon Zoo – Red-tailed hawk (February, 2011)
- view the contents of, and Material on, the website;
- download and retain copies of the Material on their personal systems in digital form in low resolution for their own personal use;
- teachers, lecturers and students may incorporate the Material in their educational material (including, but not limited to, their lesson plans, presentations, worksheets and projects) in hard copy and digital format for use within a registered educational establishment, provided that the integrity of the Material is maintained and that copyright ownership and authorship is appropriately acknowledged by the End User.
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).Top
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).Top
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).Top
Red-tailed hawk status
The red-tailed hawk is classified as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List (1).Top
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).Top
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).Top
Find out more
Learn more about raptor conservation:
More information on the red-tailed hawk and other bird species:
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:
MyARKive offers the scrapbook feature to signed-up members, allowing you to organize your favourite ARKive images and videos and share them with friends.
Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials
Copyright in this website and materials contained on this website (Material) belongs to Wildscreen or its licensors.
Visitors to this website (End Users) are entitled to:
End Users shall not copy or otherwise extract, alter or manipulate Material other than as permitted in these Terms and Conditions of Use of Materials.
Additional use of flagged material
Green flagged material
Certain Material on this website (Licence 4 Material) displays a green flag next to the Material and is available for not-for-profit conservation or educational use. This material may be used by End Users, who are individuals or organisations that are in our opinion not-for-profit, for their not-for-profit conservation or not-for-profit educational purposes. Low resolution, watermarked images may be copied from this website by such End Users for such purposes. If you require high resolution or non-watermarked versions of the Material, please contact Wildscreen with details of your proposed use.
Creative commons material
Certain Material on this website has been licensed to Wildscreen under a Creative Commons Licence. These images are clearly marked with the Creative Commons buttons and may be used by End Users only in the way allowed by the specific Creative Commons Licence under which they have been submitted. Please see http://creativecommons.org for details.
Any other use
Please contact the copyright owners directly (copyright and contact details are shown for each media item) to negotiate terms and conditions for any use of Material other than those expressly permitted above. Please note that many of the contributors to ARKive are commercial operators and may request a fee for such use.
Save as permitted above, no person or organisation is permitted to incorporate any copyright material from this website into any other work or publication in any format (this includes but is not limited to: websites, Apps, CDs, DVDs, intranets, extranets, signage, digital communications or on printed materials for external or other distribution). Use of the Material for promotional, administrative or for-profit purposes is not permitted.