The red-tailed hawk is the most common bird of prey in North America, but because this buteo has many plumage morphs it can also be one of the most challenging to identify. Western populations have more variation, but fortunately every type of red-tailed hawk has similar characteristics and field marks that can be noted.
Red-Tailed Hawk, Red-Tail, Hen-Hawk
- Bill: Large, strongly hooked, yellow cere at base
- Size: 20-22 inches long with 50-inch wingspan, broad wings
- Colors: Black, brown, white, rust, yellow
- Markings: Genders are similar with dark mottled coloring above and light wing undersides with a brown patagium and dark “commas” at the wrists. The head is lighter brown, and the tail is rust red with a faint dark band near the tip. The chest and throat are white and the abdomen has a wide band of brown streaks across it. Legs are feathered and feet are yellow. The red tail does not develop until the second year.
Small and medium mammals, reptiles, small birds, insects
Habitat and Migration:
Red-tailed hawks are common and widespread throughout the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico in a wide range of habitats, including grassland, tundra, desert, marshes and forests. Canadian bird populations and those in the extreme northern United States may migrate seasonally depending on weather severity and food supplies.
The red-tailed hawk’s signature descending “kreeeeeeeer” screech is commonly used in movies, no matter what bird of prey is pictured. These hawks also have a strong “screee” scolding call and nestling birds will use a high-pitched begging call to attract attention from their parents.
Red-tailed hawks are commonly seen perched on poles, fences or trees near roadsides as they scan fields for prey, and they will also soar over suitable habitat while hunting. They may take smaller prey back to a perch to feed, while larger prey is eaten on the ground.
Red-tailed hawks are monogamous birds that will return to the same nesting site each year. Both parents will incubate a brood of 2-3 eggs for 30-35 days, and the young birds will remain in the nest for 42-45 days. Both parents care for the hatchlings, and a mated pair will raise one brood per year.
Attracting Red-Tailed Hawks:
These are not common backyard birds, but birders with large, undeveloped acreage may attract red-tailed hawks by leaving dead trees and fence posts available as perches and ensuring that grassland is left undisturbed for small mammals and other prey.
- Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni)
- Rough-Legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus)
- Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis)