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Red-tailed Hawks Are Way Bigger, Faster and More Common Than You Realize

Red-tailed hawk
Red-tailed hawks spend much of their time perched high up in tree tops or on telephone poles in search of prey, until they take off on the hunt. mallardg500/Getty Images

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Surely you've seen a gorgeous bald eagle sweep across a TV or movie screen while it makes its familiar call — a harsh scream that sounds like "KEEE-eeer." But chances are you what you heard wasn't an eagle at all. It was more likely the piercing shrill of a red-tailed hawk instead.

"The eagle's call is much 'weaker' and sounds wimpy compared to that of the hawk," Scott Barnes, All Things Birds program director and assistant director of eco-travel for New Jersey Audubon, says in an email interview. Because the smaller and more prevalent red-tailed hawk has a much mightier voice than its larger cousin, the bald eagle, Hollywood regularly dubs over the call of the bald eagle with that of the red-tailed hawk to toughen up the symbol of America. (The bald eagle actually boasts a little cackling type of a laugh that's not very impressive.)

Probably the most common hawk species in North America (there are more than 200 worldwide and about 25 species in the U.S.!), the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) can be spotted soaring above rural areas from coast to coast and perching in open areas with scattered, elevated places, Rick Schwartz, a global ambassador for California's San Diego Zoo, says via email. Among the identifying characteristics of these raptors: keen eyesight, binocular vision, powerful talons for grabbing prey and a sharp beak.

These birds were first identified in Jamaica, in the West Indies, which is how it gets its species name, jamaicensis. But red-tailed hawks also are known as chicken, buzzard, red and Harlan's hawks. Today, although they avoid tundra and thick forest, they are more adaptable than any other hawk in the Buteo genus, Schwartz says. Their varied habitats include scrub, desert, plains, grasslands, agricultural fields, pastures, parks, woodlands and tropical rain forests.

Here are nine other facts you might not know about this ubiquitous yet fascinating bird of prey.

1. They Have Red Tails

OK, while that might sound pretty obvious, it actually takes an entire year before the species comes by its namesake red tail, according to Barnes. "Juvenile red-tailed hawks have a brown tail," he explains, "until they molt their tail feathers roughly one year after birth." The youngsters also are a much lighter color than their parents, with their feathers gradually changing color over several molts.

Red-tailed hawk
Red-tailed hawks are one of the largest birds of prey in North America, and they get their name from their red tails.
Todd Ryburn Photography/Getty Images

2. They Come in a Variety of Colors

While all red-tailed hawks have a yellow cere (waxy, fleshy covering at the base of the upper beak), bill and legs — and all adults have the copper-colored tail that gives them their common name — there are more than 12 subspecies, according to Barnes. "The Eastern red-tailed hawk has a brown head and back, white throat and chest, band of brown streaks across the belly and brick-red tail," he says. "Male and female red-tailed hawks are similar, with no discernable difference in plumage."

Some of this variation is regional. Light-morph Western birds tend to be streakier on the underparts than Eastern red-tails, while a Great Plains race called "Krider's" hawk is pale, with a whitish head and washed-out pink in the tail. South Texas forms are darker above, without the dark belly band most other red tails have. Dark-morph birds can occur anywhere, but are more common in western North America — particularly in Alaska and Northwest Canada, where the all-dark "Harlan's" race is common.

3. They're Big Birds

There is some variation in size among red-tailed hawk subspecies, with the largest in northern populations and smallest in southern populations, according to Barnes. "Generally," he says, "red-tailed hawks are about 22 inches (55 centimeters) in length, with a 43-inch (109-centimeter) wingspan."

4. They're Super Fast

During ordinary flight, red-tailed hawks might be a little slower than ducks or geese, but when they go into a dive, they're like a highly tuned racing car. When the red-tailed hawk swoops down to catch prey (which it can spot from a distance of 100 feet [30 meters]), the bird dives at a speed of at least 120 miles per hour (193 kilometers per hour).

5: They Have Excellent Eyesight

"They can see colors like most humans can, as well as those in the ultraviolet range," says Schwartz. "This means that hawks can perceive colors that humans cannot see. Red-tailed hawks are diurnal hunters, but see black and white well enough to also hunt at dusk, the time when nocturnal animals (especially rodents) begin to awaken and move around. These predators have a nictitating membrane — a clear, inner lid that cleans the eye and protects it while the hawk is wrestling with its prey."

Red-tailed hawk
Excellent eyesight is one of their best attributes, and it allows them to spot small prey like mice, voles, rabbits and squirrels, from distances of 100 feet (30 meters).
Jeff Schreier Photography/Getty Images

6. They're Savage Hunters

"They 'hover-hunt' by flapping in place over potential prey, and by swooping down to grab a meal with their sharp talons," says Barnes. "Or they 'perch hunt,' which is exactly like it sounds — sitting on a perch (sometimes a telephone pole) and watching below for prey. Once an item is spotted, the hawk drops off its perch and tries to grab a meal." Their food of choice, according to Barnes? Mostly rodents — like mice, voles, rabbits and squirrels — with the occasional snake, lizard and small bird thrown in for good measure. "In rough times, when food is scarce," he adds, "they may eat carrion (or dead and putrefying flesh)."

Red-tailed hawk
When a red-tailed hawk swoops down to catch prey, it can reach speeds of 120 miles per hour!
Tze-hsin Woo/Getty Images

7. They Don't Have Predators

"Adult red-tailed hawks have few predators, but great horned owls and crows prey on red-tailed hawk eggs and nestlings," says Schwartz. "Owls compete with red-tailed hawks for nest sites; both birds are known to kill the young and destroy the eggs of the other in an attempt at taking a nest site."

On rare occasions, red-tailed hawks can be preyed upon by larger raptors like eagles, according to Barnes. "The mortality rate for raptors, including red-tailed hawks is often as high as 70 percent. Life is hard for many animals in their first year of life; if red-tailed hawks make it through, they can live for up to 20 years in the wild." The oldest known wild red-tailed hawk was said to have been at least 30 years and 8 months old when it was found in 2011 in Michigan, the same state where it had been banded in 1981.

8. They Use Body Language

An aggressive red-tailed hawk holds its body and head upright, and its feathers stand up. A submissive hawk, on the other hand, holds its head lower to the ground and flattens its feathers.

9. They Mate for Life

Red-tails pair up for life, and their aerial courtship is much like their territorial displays — a daring air show of flight bravado as the birds lock talons and spiral downward, according to Schwartz. "The more migratory red-tailed hawks of the North have dramatic displays, while the more sedentary birds of the South don't seem to work as hard to impress their mates," he says. "Although red-tailed hawks mate for life, it doesn't mean a surviving partner won't go on to mate again, even returning the next season to the breeding territory it knows best." Another interesting breeding fact? "Red-tailed hawk eggshells are tinted green on the inside," says Schwartz.

Last editorial update on May 21, 2020 04:08:51 pm.

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