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Red-tailed Hawk

Appearance

The plumage of the red-tailed hawk varies depending on the subspecies and the region that they come from in North and Central America. Even though the colours might vary the basic appearance of the red-tailed hawk is consistent. The underbelly is lighter than the back and there is a dark brown band across the belly. The red tail which they are named for is uniformly brick red in colour and is pink below. Their bill is black and short and is hooked in shape. They have short tails and the wings are thick.

Like all other raptors red-tailed hawks have really good vision and can see colours just like humans do, they can also see colours that are in the ultraviolet range which means they can see colours that even humans can’t. They have a clear third inner eyelid that cleans the eye and also protects it while they are hunting prey.

The average weight of a male red-tailed hawk is 1.1 to 1.2 kgs (2.4 to 2.6 lbs) with the female weighing around 1.3 to 1.5 kgs (2.8 to 3.3 lbs). The average body length is 45 to 55 cms (18 to 22 in) with a wingspan of 120 to 141 cms (47 to 56 in).

Diet

Red-tailed hawks are carnivores ( meat eaters) with their diet mainly made up of small mammals, but also includes reptiles and birds. The prey that they eat usually depends on the seasons and the regions that they live in, but about 85% of their diet is made up of rodents. The most common types of prey that they eat are mice, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits. They are opportunistic hunters and will often perch high up on telephone poles etc along the roadside so that can spot the prey and swoop down and grab it in their talons.

red tailed hawk

Scientific Name

Buteo jamaicensis

Conservation Status

Least Concern

Height

45-55cm (18-22in)

Weight

Male

1.1-1.2kg (2.4-2.6lbs)

Female

1.3-1.5kg (2.8-3.3lbs)

Wingpsan

120-141cm (47-56in)

Lifespan

Wild 21 years

Captive 29 years

Diet

Carnivorous

Range

The red-tailed hawk is found in North America and Central America. Its range extends from central Alaska and the Northwest Territories east to Southern Quebec and south to Florida and the West Indies and to Central America.

Habitat

The preferred habitat is mixed forest and fields, with high trees that it can use as perches to hunt for prey. They also inhabit several other types of habitats such as grasslands, deserts, mountains, tropical rainforests and mountains.

Reproduction

Red-tailed hawks usually mate for life and usually use the same nest year after year.

They make a nest either high up in a tree, on a cliff ledge or high on a man made structure. The nests are quite large and can measure up to 1 metre (3 ft) in diameter, and are constructed from twigs, branches, bark, pine needles and other plant matter.

The female will lay between 1 and 3 eggs in March or April, the clutch size depending on the availability of prey for the adults. The eggs are mainly incubated by the female except for when the male takes over when the female goes off to hunt or stretch her wings.

After an incubation period of approximately 30 days the eggs will hatch over 2 to 4 days. When the nestlings hatch they are “altricial which means they need to be cared for and fed by the parents.

The female will stay with the young which are called eyasses while the male goes out and gets food for the female and the young, the female will tear the food into small pieces and feed it to the young.

After approximately 45 days the eyasses will begin to leave the nest for short flights, during this time they will chase their parents while they hunt. The parents will drop small bits of food for the young to catch, finally dropping live prey which the young will chase and catch. They do this less and less as the young become more skilled at catching the prey and are able to hunt on their own.

Sexual maturity is achieved at around 3 years old.

Behavior

Red-tailed hawks usually keep the same territory, which can be up to 25 square kilometres (9.6 square miles), their whole lives. They defend the area using territorial displays of flying which involves steep climbs and dives. Both the males and the females help defend the territory.

When the young are born they do not have a red tail, and it is not until they have undergone several molts that their colour will change and they will develop the red tail depending on the region that they live in.

They have a cry which starts out high pitched and is often described as sounding similar to that of a steam whistle.

When they mate they often stay with the same partner for life, generally only getting a new mate if one of the pair dies.


The feathers as well as other parts of the red-tailed hawk are considered to be sacred to many American indigenous people. They are often used in their religious ceremonies and are found adorning the regalia of many Native Americans in the United States.

Quick facts

Hawk eggshells are tinted green on the inside.

Hawks are part of a group of birds called raptors. Some other raptors are falcons, owls, vultures and eagles.

They play an important role in the ecosystem by helping to control numbers of rabbits etc, They also help farmers by keeping down the numbers of mice and other rodents that eat their crops.

References

BirdLife International (2020) Species factsheet: Buteo jamaicensis. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 21/04/2020

Dewey, T. and Arnold, D., 2020. Buteo Jamaicensis (Red-Tailed Hawk). [online] Animal Diversity Web. Available at: <https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Buteo_jamaicensis/#reproduction> [Accessed 21 April 2020].

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