Look up! See that large bird with wings spread, soaring effortlessly overhead in wide circles? If you live in North America, chances are you’ve seen a Red-tailed Hawk while looking skyward. Chances are also good that, when looking for hawks, you have pointed excitedly, and then realized you were looking at a vulture instead (and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just not a hawk).
Red-tailed Hawks belong to the genus buteo. Buteos are medium to large hawks with broad wings and short, broad tails. The Red-tailed Hawk’s wingspan can be from 42 to 55 inches! Like other raptors, the female Red-tailed Hawks are generally larger than the males.
In the images below, the female of a pair is calling to the male from her perch on a utility pole. Her mate was in a tree about 200 yards away from her.
Adult Red-tailed Hawks, as their name implies, have beautiful rusty red tails (the juveniles’ tails are brown banded). Their bodies are a rich brown on the back, with much lighter bellies that often sport a dark belly band. There is actually quite a range of colors from dark morph to lighter, so don’t be surprised if the hawk you see doesn’t look exactly like one of these images.
The Red-tailed Hawk in the image above and the one below is one of the education birds at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC.
The world can be a dangerous place for hawks (and other birds), for many reasons. Some of those reasons are human-caused, resulting in injuries that make it impossible for the bird to survive on its own. Birds that are lucky enough to be found and transported to facilities like the Center for Birds of Prey for medical care, sometimes become education birds, helping all of us to learn more about their important part in nature.
To learn about some of the things you can do to help prevent injuries to hawks and other birds, visit the website below:
In the image above right, you will see something you might have seen before…a small bird (or group of birds) seemingly attacking a hawk. This Northern Mockingbird was not at all happy that a Red-tailed Hawk was fairly close to its nest! It flew back and forth, practically hitting the hawk in the head, over and over again. The hawk ignored the mockingbird for as long as it could, then finally flew off.
This behavior is called mobbing. Why do you think small birds would do this? Make a guess, and then visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website below to learn more about this interesting behavior and its reasons:
Though I knew what they were and had seen them many times before, I fell in love with Red-tailed Hawks in 2012, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology activated its nest cam on the Cornell campus. From the first moment I tuned in, I knew my world-view was going to change dramatically. We were able to look right into the hawks’ nest, watch Big Red lay her eggs and incubate them until the chicks hatched, then , and witness all of the feedings and the chicks’ growth until they finally left the nest, months after the parents first selected and prepared the nest site.
The image above, taken in 2013, is of the light tower where the now-famous Big Red (female) and Ezra (male) made their nest that year. In different years, they have moved back and forth between nests on two light towers that are part of the same athletic field.
Nests and Nesting: Nests are made of sticks piled up, and are lined with bark and other soft vegetation, along with fresh leaves. Often, the hawk pair (who generally mate for life) will refresh and add to a nest from the previous season. Nests are sometimes located high up in the crown of a large tree; they may also be found on cliff ledges or even on human-made structures, such as building ledges, billboards or places like the Cornell light towers. Both parents help build and maintain the nest.
Red-tailed Hawks may have a brood of 1 – 5 eggs. It takes a long time to incubate the lovely buff-colored speckled eggs (around 30 – 35 days), and even longer to take care of the chicks until they are ready to fledge (leave the nest at around 45 days after hatching). Even after the young birds fledge, there are weeks of learning how to catch their own live prey, so the parents continue to bring them food. Added up, this takes a full season, from nest-building, egg-laying and incubating to brooding and getting the fledglings up to par in their own prey catching. Therefore, hawks have just one brood per year.
In the images above, taken in 2015 at Big Red and Ezra’s nest at Cornell, the three chicks have not yet fledged (flown from the nest), but are almost ready. Notice how much attention they are paying to something overhead and how busy they are practicing flying and getting strong!
In the images below, one of the 2016 chicks (who had just fledged in the previous week) is trying to figure out where to perch and how to navigate a very complex world.
I have a Red-tailed Hawk nest in my neighborhood. Juveniles have landed on the power pole in front of my house and in trees across the way for the last few seasons, and just last week I heard before I saw this year’s young one. Thanks to my online experiences with Big Red and Ezra’s youngsters, I recognize the juveniles’ food begging calls in an instant! Throughout the year I enjoy seeing the adults soaring overhead or perched high in the trees or on poles. I have looked for the nest, but still haven’t found it, and that’s okay, because that means it’s in a good safe location.
This juvie visited my pole in October, 2015.
Diet: Red-tailed Hawks are birds of prey. They catch live mammals such as rodents, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks, as well as some birds and snakes.
Notice, too, this juvenile’s brown barred tail. It won’t get its red tail until next year!
Challenge Question 2: Can you tell if this image is of an adult or a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk? What clues did you use?
Range: Though some Red-tailed Hawks may migrate short distances, many stay put. You will find them throughout almost all of North America. Red-tailed Hawks live in a variety of open habitats, such as fields, pastures, parks, more open woodland areas and even the desert. There are also hawks in urban areas, so even if you live in a large city, you may see them. Now, all you have to do is look up!
To learn more about these abundant and interesting birds, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website dedicated to the Red-tailed Hawk:
After reading the identification page, be sure to click on the “Life History,” “Sound” and “Video” tabs to learn more.
You can also find information (and peruse the photo gallery and listen to some audio clips of various songs and calls) at Audubon’s website dedicated to this hawk:
Challenge Question 1 Answer: Yes! The hawk on the left is the female. She is somewhat larger than her mate on the right.
Challenge Question 2 Answer: Yes! It is a juvenile. Did you use the clue that this young hawk doesn’t have its red tail yet?
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