Named for the rusty red color of its tail, the red-tail hawk is the most common hawk found in North America. Their range spans all of the United States and much of Canada and Central America, as well as the West Indies. According to National Geographic, there are 14 subspecies of red-tail hawk, although not all of them sport the colorful tail for which they are famous.
The red-tail hawk is one of the largest birds in North America. They have an average wingspan of 44.9 to 52.4 inches. Female red-tails tend to be larger than males. Most red-tail hawks have brown backs and pale-tan bellies. The red color of the tail is in the top feathers, while the underside closely matches the bird’s belly. Many red-tails sport a dark band along the underside of their wing. Some red-tail hawks are all brown or reddish brown, except for the red on the tail.
Habitat and Diet
Red-tailed hawks are birds of prey. They hunt rabbits, squirrels, lizards, mice or other rodents (or any small animal). Their sharp vision allows them to spot their targets from the height of trees or telephone poles. Red-tailed hawks prefer to live in open spaces, such as fields, deserts and mountains, where it can be more difficult for prey to hide. The space also allows the aerial hunter to dive down and catch its prey. Hawks, unlike falcons, dive slowly, feet first, with their talons outstretched and ready to grab their meal.
These birds of prey mate for life. Their typical mating ritual involves dancing together through the air; a dance that ends with a death-defying stunt. The birds lock their talons together and plummet toward the ground in an uncontrolled fall before separating again. Once mated, red-tailed hawks will often hunt as a team. They also parent as a team, taking turns warming eggs and feeding chicks. Red-tail hawks often choose a territory of their own, living in the same nest and hunting in the same fields throughout their lives.
Some Fun Facts
Did you know that red-tailed hawks are one of the few birds of prey that actually “scream?” According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, whenever a bird of prey (of any species) is shown hunting or diving in films, the sound effect that is used is almost always a red-tailed hawk cry. Despite fearsome cry and large size, the biggest of red-tailed hawks rarely weighs more than three pounds. Red-tailed hawks also have an impressive life span, averaging 21 years in the wild. The oldest known red-tailed hawk lived almost 29 years.