Red-tailed Hawks are the most common large hawks in North America. Their long, broad wings and short tails enable them to soar while searching for prey. Red-tails measure 18 to 25 inches in length and have a wingspan of 48 to 52 inches. The average weight of this hawk is between two and three pounds.
Red-tailed Hawks can have significant color variation in plumage. Adults of the light form are dark brown on the back and the dorsal portion of the wings. They are mostly light on the breast and belly, with a dark head, dark band on the belly and dark coloring on the leading edge of the wing. The dark morph is entirely chocolate brown or rufous, except for the underside of the flight feathers and underneath the tail, which are much lighter. In all forms the tail is rusty-red on top and light underneath. Young hawks of this species lack the distinctive red-tail, having instead a brown, barred tail.
Habitat and Prey
Red-tailed Hawks can be found throughout the North American continent, north to the limit of forest habitat and south to Mexico and Central America. A typical "buteo," these hawks are adapted to live and hunt in open country, soaring with ease over vast expanses of grassland and desert. Over their territory, red-tails hunt for their main prey: rabbits and rodents.
The same nest and nesting territory is often reoccupied by the same pair year after year. Large stick nests, sometimes exceeding 30 inches in diameter, are constructed by both sexes. They are built either in large trees or on a cliff. Two to four spotted eggs are laid in late March or April, and incubated primarily by the female for about 30 days. The young hawks are fed by both parents, and remain in the nest for six to seven weeks. After fledging, they stay in the nest area for another four to six weeks, relying on the adults for food. Upon reaching independence the young may either disperse from the natal area (in any direction) or migrate south. Red-tailed hawks do not begin nesting until they are at least two years of age.
In western North America, Red-tailed Hawks migrate south beginning in late August (predominantly immatures) until late October. Most adults return to their nesting area by late March or early April. Red-tails banded in autumn in Nevada's Goshute Mountains have been recovered in western Mexico in winter. Red-tailed Hawks are among the most common raptors observed migrating along western ridges.