Red-Tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk

The red-tail is one of the the largest hawks, usually weighing between two and four pounds. As with most raptors, the female is nearly a third larger than the male and may have a wing span of 56 inches. This species shows a great deal of individual variation in plumage.

The adult has a rufous-colored tail that may or may not have a black terminal bar. Adults are dark brown on the back and the top of their wings. The underside of the bird is usually light with a dark belly band, and a cinnamon wash on the neck and chest. Immature hawks resemble the adults except their tail is brown with dark bars; the red- tail molts in during its second year.

The adult red-tailed hawk is easily identified, for when it leaves its perch on slow, measured wing beats, or turns while soaring overhead, the broad, rounded tail shows a rich, russet red, hence the name. Within its range, its frequent soaring and loud voice are a good pointer.

Geography – Range

The red-tailed hawk ranges throughout North America to central Alaska and northern Canada, and south as far as the mountains of Panama. Although not truly migratory, they do adjust seasonally to areas with the most abundant prey. In winter many of the northern birds move south.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

Phylum : Chordata
Class : Aves
Order : Falconiform

Family : Accipitridae
Genus: Buteo
Species: jamaicensis
Vital Stats

Weight: 2-4 lbs.
Length: 22"
Wing Span: 56 inches"
Sexual Maturity: 3 yrs.
Mating Season: spring
Incubation: 28-32 days
No. of Eggs: 1-3
Birth Interval: year
Lifespan: 10-21 yrs.
Typical diet: small rodents, snakes

Red-tailed hawk soaring overhead

Related Species

Hawks are carnivores (meat eaters) that belong to the category of birds known as raptors -- birds of prey. They have strong, hooked beaks; their feet have three toes pointed forward and one turned back; and their claws, or talons, are long, curved and very sharp. Prey is killed with the long talons and, if it is too large to swallow whole, it is torn to bite-sized pieces.

Since the beginning of recorded history, birds of prey have been both despised and revered. The sport of falconry -- using raptors as hunting aids -- has been practiced in Asia and Egypt since 3000 BC. Yet, until recent years, birds of prey have also been ruthlessly destroyed because of real or imagined competition with humans for game and domesticated animals.

The red-tailed hawk is a grouping of 14 sub-species, each of which is more or less specific to a geographical area, and differs from the others in size, markings etc.


Based on general body shape and flight habits, hawks are classified into different groups (genera): theButeo most common being the Accipiters and the Buteos.

The sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper's hawk and the goshawk are Accipiters. They have long tails and short, rounded wings that enable them to dart through and around trees in pursuit of other birds, their principal prey. Typically, they fly low with a series of rapid wing beats followed by a brief period of sailing, then another series of wing beats. Accipiters are associated with brush and timbered areas.

The Buteos are the largest of the hawks. They are the broad-winged, broad-tailed soaring hawks that are more readily seen because of their habit of circling high in the air or perching in dead trees or on telephone poles along the road. They include the red-tailed, the red-shouldered, the Swainson's, the rough-legged and the ferruginous hawks.

Curious Facts

Hawks are carnivores (meat eaters) who belong to the category of birds known as raptors.

The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common member of the buzzard hawk family.

The eyesight of a hawk is 8 times as powerful as a human's.

Like all hawks, the Red-tailed Hawk's talons are its main weapons.

The Red-tailed Hawk has hoarse and rasping 2- to3-second scream that is most commonly heard while soaring.

85 to 90 % of the Red-tailed Hawk's diet is composed of small rodents.


The red-tailed hawk has a hoarse and rasping 2- to 3-second scream that is most commonly heard while soaring. They are loudest when defending their young. When parents leave the nest, the young utter a loud wailing "klee-uk," repeated several times - this is a food cry.

red tail feathers


The red-tailed hawk has a broad, rounded tail that shows a rich, russet red.


Hawk faceThe eyesight of a hawk is eight times as powerful as a human's.


The red-tailed Hawk is the most widespread and familiar member of the American Buteos (large soaring hawks). They nest in the month of March in tall trees. Like all other Buteos, they do not fly fast but soar at high altitudes using their keen eyesight to spot the slightest movement in the grass below. It is an aggressive bird and vigorously defends its territory, especially during the winter months when hunting is difficult.


The red-tailed hawk is usually found in grasslands or marsh-shrub habitats, but is a very adaptable bird, being equally at home in deserts and forests, and at varying heights above sea level.

Food & Hunting

The red-tailed hawk is a most opportunistic hunter. Its diet is varied, but there is conclusive evidence now that 85 to 90 % is composed of small rodents, with rabbits, snakes and lizards included. Where there are large numbers of pheasant, these become the food of choice in spring and summer. Like all hawks, its talons are its main weapons.


Mating and nest building begin in early spring, usually in March and continue through May. This is accompanied by spectacular aerial displays by both males and females. Circling and soaring to great heights, they fold their wings and plummet to treetop level, repeating this display as much as five or six times.

Nests are located from 35 to 75 feet high in the forks of large trees. The nest is large, flat, shallow and made of sticks and twigs about 1/2 inch in diameter. Both males and females assist in nest construction. Nest sites may be used from year to year, since there is strong evidence that hawks mate for life. If the old nest is wind damaged, layers of new nesting material are added each year.

The female usually lays 2 dull-white to bluish-white eggs that are marked with a variety of irregular reddish spots and splotches. Incubation takes 28-32 days and is maintained almost entirely by the female. During this period the male hunts for both of them, bringing her food to the nest.

When hatched, the young are covered with white down. They grow slowly and require much food, which keeps both parents busy. They remain in the nest for up to 48 days. During the last 10 days or so the young, which now appear as large as the parent birds, practice flapping their wings and balancing in the wind on the edge of the nest, preparing for the days when they will launch themselves into the air.

The young fledge at about 45 days. Red-tails typically do not begin breeding until their third year.


In California, state and federal laws protect all raptors. Because of their inexperience hunting, juvenile birds may be seen eating road-killed animals. They may even kill chickens, and despite this rare occurrence, the red-tail is known throughout the country as a "chicken hawk." As a consequence, dead hawks hanging from fences and lying under trees and power poles are mute evidence that shooters, not understanding the economic or esthetic importance of raptors, or perhaps unaware of protective laws, still kill them indiscriminately. In the rare case of an individual raptor or hawk that engages in active predation on domestic birds or animals, such a bird may be judiciously removed in accordance with current regulations.


Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms



The Black Widow SpiderView Video about The Black Widow Spider. The female black widow spider is the most venomous spider in North America, but it seldom causes death to humans, because it only injects a very small amount of poison when it bites. Click here to view video.

The Bobcat

The BobcatVideo available on this subject.
Despite its pussycat appearance when seen in repose, the bobcat is quite fierce and is equipped to kill animals as large as deer. However, food habit studies have shown bobcats subsist on a diet of rabbits, ground squirrels, mice, pocket gophers and wood rats. Join us as we watch this sleepy bobcat show his teeth.

Mountain Lion

The Mountain Lion
The Mountain Lion, also known as the Cougar, Panther or Puma, is the most widely distributed cat in the Americas. It is unspotted -- tawny-colored above overlaid with buff below. It has a small head and small, rounded, black-tipped ears. Watch one in this video.


Take a look at our Animals index page to find information about all kinds of birds, snakes, mammals, spiders and more!

Hot temperatures in the desertAre you interested in the temperatures in the desert?

Click here to see current desert temperatures!

Copyright © 1996-2020 and Digital West Media, Inc. - -