Raptors of the genus Buteo are known in North America as “the soaring hawks”. In Europe they are commonly known as “buzzards”. The Red-Tailed Hawk is probably the best known of all the North American Buteos. This species is commonly encountered along many a stretch of North American highway.
This is one of the largest common Buteos in North America. The Red-Tailed Hawk shows quite a lot of variation over it’s large range, as a result even it’s average adult weight varies greatly, from between 2 and 4 pounds. It also exhibits a large degree of individual variation in the coloration of it’s plumage.
The average adult specimen can usually be identified by the presence of it’s distinctly rufous-colored tail, that may or may not be tipped with a black terminal bar. However the red coloration of the tail is not usually obvious in Melanistic or dark specimens; like in populations of the Harlan's Hawk, a western sub-species that is native to a humid climate.
The Harlan's Hawk’s tail has a pale ground color that is heavily mottled with black. Adults of this sub-species have a generally dark brown mantle or dorsal plumage. The underside or ventral plumage of this sub-species is typically somewhat lighter. There is usually a dark band on the lower flanks or Flag, with a cinnamon wash to the neck and breast.
At the opposite extreme is the Krider's Red-Tailed Hawk, a pale-colored sub-species native to the North American prairies. This race is predominately white, with little or no markings on it’s white breast and ventral plumage. Even it’s head is very light-colored. In fact, even albino specimens are not all that uncommon. No matter what the the color phase, except albino of course; the underside or ventral surface of the primaries (flight feathers) of the wings remain distinctly light-colored. Immature individuals of this species resemble the adults at a glance. However, in the immature the tail is somewhat darker with narrow dark bars, usually visible at intervals along it’s length. Red-Tailed Hawks experience their first molt at one year of age, although sexual maturity is still a few years away, especially for males.
Although a highly adaptable species, the Red-Tailed Hawk’s habitat usually consists of generally open terrain, often bordering wood lots close to farms and other urban areas. Not a species found in thick forested areas, it is often found in grasslands and even marsh/shrub habitats; wherever suitable prey species and nesting trees exist.
The Red-Tailed Hawk breeds across a wide range, extending in the north from Central Alaska throughout most of Canada south of the tree line, and throughout the entire United States. It’s range to the south includes Mexico, and even Central America. There is a general tendency for the northern most population to move south in the winter, especially in years of prey scarcity.
Red-Tailed Hawks are very adaptable when it comes to their diet, and as a result they feed on a wide variety of prey. They are extremely individualistic in their hunting habits. Mammals usually compose a large part of their diet, which includes everything from small mammals like mice and voles, on up to rabbits and hares. They even take medium sized birds, and reptiles such as snakes and lizards. Fish and insects are not beneath their notice. Even carrion is not refused, and many a Red-Tailed Hawk has been observed to feed from road kills.
Red-tailed Hawks usually do not become sexually active until their third year. However, females can breed earlier, and males often somewhat later than this. This species builds a large stick nest, preferably in the main upper fork of a deciduous tree at the edge of a patch of open canopy forest. In most areas of it’s range, almost every small wooded area contains a pair of breeding Red-Tailed Hawks. They usually lay two to four eggs in April or May, with hatching occurring in approximately 30 days. There is little to no sibling rivalry. The young remain in the vicinity of the nest until they are flying well, and then remain dependent upon their parents until they learn to forage for themselves.
The Red-Tailed Hawk was once a highly persecuted species by virtue of the fact that it was usually and falsely blamed for depredation on poultry. This was due more to it’s conspicuous presence around farms than to it’s actual feeding habits. This false belief is how this species earned the now little used nickname of ‘chicken hawk’. Today Red-Tailed Hawks are a very common species across it's wide range, due in no small part to it’s very adaptable nature. The Red-Tailed Hawk has certainly made a most spectacular comeback since the dark days of the hawk bounties. This species is one of the most visible and well known soaring hawks in North America today. The Red-tailed Hawk is in fact the ‘beginners bird’ of choice for novice falconers throughout most of North America, and it is an equally popular bird among various nature centers for use in educational demonstrations. However dispite these facts it still remains listed by CITES (the convention on the international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora) as Appendix II or threatened.
If you have found an injured bird of prey (hawk, falcon, owl, etc.), contact the Centre and our experienced staff can assist in determining what steps should be taken to ensure the bird receives the best possible care.
Havelock, Ontario K0L 1Z0
Telephone : +1 705 778 5273
Email : staff