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Red-tailed Hawk

Meet our education bird Syd, a red-tailed hawk, and learn more about her species.

Syd - Tom Schmid
Syd - Tom Schmid
Meet Syd

Hatched: Spring 1992

Arrived at Audubon: 1992

Sex: Female

Expected lifespan: 10-20 in the wild; 10-25 years in captivity

History: Syd was injured as a fledgling in 1992 while feeding on road kill. Many birds of prey scavenge road kills and “hit by car” is the number-one cause of injury for raptors brought to the Wildlife Care Center. Syd’s right wing was broken in the accident and did not heal properly. She can only fly about 10 feet and would not be able to hunt or survive in the wild.

Syd has been around people for many years, but shows her wild self every spring when she becomes territorial and tries to build a nest. She doesn’t allow many people near her at this time, although she does have favorite people who bring her sticks for her project.

While living at Audubon, Syd has taught people about the power of raptors: her keen eyes, razor-sharp talons and beautiful brownish plumage. She also provides a reminder about wildlife in the urban environment and how all our choices impact those living unseen around us.

Sponsor Syd

You can help care for Syd through Portland Audubon's "Sponsor a Wild Thing" program. Sponsorship is a great way to learn more about our incredible education birds; to help us meet the birds' food, medical, and housing needs; and to support our efforts to bring the birds to classrooms and events, where they serve as ambassadors for their species and Portland Audubon. Sponsor Syd now.

Red-tailed Hawk - Jim Cruce
Red-tailed Hawk - Jim Cruce
Species Fact Sheet

Scientific name
Buteo jamaicensis

Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitridae
Genus: Buteo
Species: jamaicensis

Male length: 48-60 cm.
Female length: 55-63 cm.

Male weight: 794-1200 gm.
Female weight: 900-1590 gm.

Male wingspan: 3.5-4 feet
Female wingspan: 4 feet

The Red-tailed Hawk is one of the most common large broad-winged hawks in North America. Red-tailed hawks have a broad fan-shaped tail. Adults are readily identified by the upper surface of their red tails. Typically, their backs and upper wing surfaces are dark gray or reddish brown, streaked and barred with lighter colors. Their plumage is highly variable, however. In a lighter-color phase, adult breasts are cream colored and streaked with brown. There is a darker blackish band across the belly. Dark phase birds may have red or black bellies, breasts, or wing linings.

Immature birds begin to obtain adult plumage in their second year. Their colors also vary, but usually brown above, white below with heavy spots and streaks; tail brown, indistinctly banded. As they change to the adult plumage, their tail feathers will drop out and be replaced by the red ones, and their other feathers will also turn more reddish in color. They will usually have their full adult plumage by the time they are two years old.

Red-tails range from northern Canada and Alaska to Panama and Central America. They are one of North America’s most common raptors. The smallest of the Red-tails are found in Alaska, with the largest ones found in Northern Mexico.

Habitat/territory size
Typical habitats of Red-tails include open country, scrub, woodlands, wide rocky canyons and urban and suburban environments. They inhabit forests of the east as well as prairies and desserts of the west. They usually nest in tall trees near the edge of woodlands. In prairie and deserts, however, they may dwell on a ledge or in a low tree or cactus.

Red-tails are very adaptable and wide ranging so they may be found almost anywhere. They are often seen perched within a few yards of busy highways, looking for live prey or road kills.

Red-tails will winter from southern Canada south to Central America.

Red-tails prey on a wide variety of animals from grasshoppers to rats and mice, squirrels, rabbits, and other birds. They are successful because their prey species varies. About 75 percent of their diet consists of rodents and other small mammals. They will also consume rattlesnakes and reptiles as well as carrion.

Hunting method
Red-tailed Hawks, like other buteos, expend less energy in their hunting than accipiters. They soar above or will scan fields from a perch in a tree or from a fence post, and then move in for the kill. For unwary prey like mice, they will fly openly from perch to perch. Mice don’t pay any attention until it’s too late. For larger, more alert prey, Red-tails sneak! They may approach indirectly, behind a cover of trees and bushes, or they may perch and look unconcerned and disinterested until the prey’s head is hidden or its attention is distracted. Then they’ll attack quickly and fiercely, and may even pursue their prey over short distances.

Red-tails have unusual techniques for hunting shelter-oriented animals, such as snakes. They don’t attack the animal directly, but instead land on the ground between the animal and its shelter. In these cases, the shelter-oriented animal (one whose first defense is to hide) won’t generally run away. Instead, it will move slowly toward or even tush toward the bird, hoping to bluff its way to safety. It takes a special kind of courage to face down a frightened and enraged gopher snake or rattler intent upon reaching shelter.

Especially during mating season, Red-tails are acrobatic technicians, often touching their mates in mid-air or dropping 2,000 feet in a single dive. Their courtship displays are exhibitions of strength and flying ability. The male flies high in the sky, then cartwheels to the earth. Sometimes the female joins him in the air, and they will interlock their talons and tumble through space until they lose so much altitude they must break apart. It is believed the Red-tails mate for life, but if one bird dies, it is quickly replaced. In fact, if an accident should befall the female during the nesting period, she may be replaced so quickly that the eggs aren’t even chilled! Paired Red-tails display courtship behavior throughout the spring even after the young are hatched. Breeding season lasts from March-May. Red-tailed Hawks breed in the early spring — the exact month depends on the latitude.

These birds nest on the forest edge, on the horizontal limb of a tall tree, close to the trunk. If no tree is available, they will use a cliff edge or holes in rocks. As with most buteos, Red-tails may have more than one nest, and will alternate from year to year. If the breeding in one nest is unsuccessful, the pair may abandon it altogether. After the nest is built by both mates, the female lays 2 to 4 eggs in March and early April, which are incubated by the female for a month. The male feeds the female while she is sitting. Eggs are grayish white with red or grayish brown spots, and measure 57 x 46 mm. Red-tails bring fresh green foliage to the nest throughout this period. There are four possible reasons for this: shade for the young, prevention or reduction of insect problems, improvement of sanitation, or aesthetics. During the incubation period and while the chicks are small, the male supplies all the food for the family. (Squirrels are preferred during this period.) Young birds remain in the nest for at least four weeks, the last two spent practicing wing movements prior to fledging.

When threatened by an intruder, few Red-tails will stay to defend their nests. They are generally shy and non-aggressive toward people, but are commonly attacked (but usually not injured) by crows, magpies, owls, other hawks, and even songbirds over territorial disputes. Calls are actually long, drawn-out raspy screams. In flight, they will make a high pitched “skeeeer,” at close range a croaking “guh-runk”. Birds frequently call while soaring.

Very common, probably the most often-seen western bird of prey. They do, however, suffer high losses from ranchers and farmers who, not realizing their great benefit in controlling rodents, shoot them off telephone poles.

The Red-tailed Hawk is listed as a species of "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.

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