Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Red-Tailed Hawk

Despite its American name of Red-Tailed Hawk (which is used extensively throughout falconry), it is actually a buzzard.

The Red Tailed Hawk is the most widely distributed diurnal raptor in America. It breeds from central Alaska all the way down to Central America & the West Indies (hence the jamaicensis part of its Latin name, the originally classified birds were found in Jamaica). The more northerly birds will migrate south during winter to avoid the worst of the weather.

The Red-Tails will prey on small mammals, such as prairie dogs, rodents & birds. The females are able to catch prey up to the size of hares (jack rabbit or cottontail in US terms). There are reports of Red-Tailed Hawks living in proximity to people catching domestic cats & those nesting in cities feeding predominantly on pigeons.

They will also feed on reptiles, quite often snakes, including rattlesnakes. To catch the rattlesnake, the hawk will approach the snake by walking with its wings outstretched making it look large & threatening. As it get closer it will bring its wing tips round to the front, so they are the closest point to the snake. When the snake strikes at the wing tips, which have no blood supply, so there is no risk to the hawk, the Red-Tail strikes out with its feet catching the snake below the head. The snake will usually be eaten whole.

Similar to the Common Buzzard, Red-Tails have large broad wings, which they use to catch thermals and soar around at height, without flapping they wings. This technique of flying, which uses the minimum energy, only flapping the wings when looking for the next thermal, is used to travel thousands of miles when migrating. They also have the ability to wind-hover (staying motionless with respect to the ground by flapping the wings) & to kite (staying motionless with respect to the ground by holding the wings still & angled to provide lift from the wind), similar to Kestrels.


There is also a similar looking buzzard found in the Patagonian forests of Chile & Argentina, that is sometimes called the Red Tailed Buzzard (Buteo ventralis), for some time it was assumed to be a migrant subspecies of the Red Tailed Hawk, though it may be related, it is now treated as a separate species. It is now more often called the Rufous Tailed Hawk, in Patagonia it is called "Aguilucho cola rojiza", which translates as "Red-tailed eaglet".

Red-tails are monogamous, tending only to find a new partner on the death of the existing one. Once paired they will normally share the same territory for hunting. They are very territorial, with the female being most protective around the nesting area & the male protecting the hunting area which can vary between a half to two square miles. Red-Tails are quite prepared to atack much larger Golden Eagles & Bald Eagles, in protection of their territory.

Breeding starts at around 3 years old & occurs around the end of March to the beginning of May, though it may start as early as January or as late as September, depending on the area the birds live in. Up to five eggs are laid. Both the male & female share the incubation, which lasts around 30 days, starting when the first egg is laid. The eggs hatch at 1-2 day intervals. The young are covered in white down & start to grow feathers around two weeks after hatching. They are fully fledged around 45 days from hatching, with the males fledging quicker than females. The parents will look after the young for up to 4 weeks after fledging & the young may stay in close proximity to the parents until autumn.

Red-Tails compete with larger owls for nesting sites & both will prey upon the young of the others in order to steal the nests. Unless evicted by owls, the nests may be used repeatedly in subsequent years, growing up to 3 feet in depth as it is added to each year.

In the wild Red-Tailed Hawks on average live 6-7 years, the longest recorded lifespan is around 20 years. In captivity, they may live up to 30 years.

The Red-Tailed Hawk is a popular bird for falconry, due to its size & enthusiasm for catching prey. They can be very temperamental, especially once used for hunting. They require regular flying to keep fit & retain the training. Due to the very restrictive laws on falconry in America, the Red-Tail is very often a beginners bird, often taken from the wild as a young bird (a passage hawk) & re-released at the end of the 2 year period of training.

Mythology & Folklore :

Red-tails are a sign of good luck according to the Mescalero Apaches.

IUCN Red List Status :

Least Concern (LC)

AOU Data :

Species Number : 337.0
Alpha Code : RTHA
Common Name : Red-tailed Hawk
Longevity Record : 28yrs 10months

Also Called :

Rabbit Hawk
Red-Tailed Buzzard (more correctly, though not common)
Chicken Hawk (though it rarely preys on chickens)
Dutch Roodstaartbuizerd
French Buse à queue rousse d'Amérique du Nord (North American Red Tailed Buzzard)
Buse à queue rousse
German Rotschwanzbussard
Russian Канюк ямайский или краснохвостый (Kanyuk jamayskiy ili krasnochvostiy)
Spanish Busardo colirrojo
Swedish Rödstjärtad vråk
Dominican Republic Guaraguaito

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