Red-tailed hawks, Buteo jamaicensis, are one of the most common and widespread hawks of North America They get their genus name from the Buteo genus of hawks which are known for their sturdy body and broad wings. Their species name comes from the island of Jamaica, where they were first studied scientifically. Besides North America, these hawks can be found in Central America and some Caribbean islands, including Cuba and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Red-tailed hawks get their familiar name from the rusty brown tail sported by the adult hawks. It is easy to identify an adult either from the air or when perched. The underbelly is white with a broad band of dark brown horizontal streaks across the middle. The beak is short and dark, while the legs, cere and feet are yellow. Generally, birds that are under two years old have bands of brown and white on the tail and develop the classic red tail in their third year.
Red-tails are most often found in open habitats such as roadsides, fields and power lines, which provide an excellent vantage for sighting prey. They are also frequently seen perching on light fixtures and telephone poles along roadways. They soar in slow circles as they climb skyward on thermal updrafts. You may see a bird suddenly stop or seem to hover from a great distance above the ground and then dive straight down to the ground to capture an unwitting animal.
If you hear some blue jays or crows yakking away, it might be because they have spotted a red-tail ( or a Great Horned Owl ) and are harassing it. This behavior is called “mobbing”. The goal of mobbing birds is to drive the hawk away from either their young or from food sources both species are competing for. With blue jays, at least to me, it seems like they do it many times just for fun. Usually the hawks simply stay put until the crows tire of their efforts. Or the hawk may have enough and fly to another area. Only once have I ever seen a red-tail respond to mobbing birds by grabbing an unfortunate crow with its talons and dropping the body to the ground. The rest of the crows quickly dispersed and lived to see another day.
Red-tails are generalist and opportunistic feeders, taking whatever prey presents itself. Small mammals such as voles, mice, chipmunks and red squirrels are frequent targets. They will also prey upon other birds, gray squirrels, rabbits, and baby woodchucks. I have seen a juvenile red-tail try to prey on two very large carp that were trapped by debris in a swollen stream bed one spring. From its perch on a small alder situated on the stream bank just above the two fish, the young hawk would jump down upon the backs of the carp. Of course this caused the surprised fish to flop mightily about and the hawk became unsure of what to do. It would retreat back into the tree and try again. This went on for quite a while, and I don’t know if the hawk gave up or finally got its meal. The only reason I even got a chance to watch this drama was because two mallards were quacking up a storm, alarmed by of the presence of the hawk, and I went off a trail to see what the commotion was about.
One thing to note about buteos is that the female bird is noticeably larger that the male. Red –tail hawks mate for life and both parents are involved in feeding their young. Males feed their mate while she is sitting on the eggs, usually for 30- 32 days. Eggs hatch a few days apart, so all fledglings are not the same size. One may be considerably delayed leaving the nest while older siblings are already able to fly. Usually in the North East, two or possibly three eggs will be laid. Fledglings leave the nest after 40-46 days after hatching. They will fly after another two or three weeks and start catching their own food 6-7 weeks after that.
A good book about red-tailed hawks is: “ Red-Tails in Love: a Wildlife Drama in Central Park ” written by Marie Winn and published by Pantheon. This book is a true story about a pair of red-tailed hawks that nest on Fifth Avenue in New York City and the band of bird-watchers who become ardent followers of these two birds. It describes the hawk’s courtship, mating and struggle to survive in the big city environment and the ways in which their devoted fans try to help them.
For good information on northern birds, the University of Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Ornithologist’s Union, and the Academy of Natural sciences worked together on a comprehensive reference, “ The Birds of North America “. Cornell’s lab of Ornithology also has an excellent website that is well worth exploring.
Pennsylvania State University
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Ohio State University