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Red Tail Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis


Hawks are carnivores (meat eaters) who belong to the category of birds known as raptors -- birds of prey. They have strong, hooked beaks; their feet have three toes pointed forward and one turned back; and their claws, or talons, are long, curved and very sharp. Prey is killed with the long talons and, if it is too large to swallow whole, it is torn to bite-sized pieces with the hawk's beak.

Since the beginning of recorded history, birds of prey have been both despised and revered. The sport of falconry -- using raptors as hunting aids -- has been practiced in Asia and Egypt since 3000 B.C. Yet, until recent years, birds of prey have also been ruthlessly destroyed because of real or imagined competition with humans for game and domesticated animals.


Based on general body shape and flight habits, hawks are classified into three different groups (genus): the Accipiters, the Falcons and the Buteos.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk, the Cooper's Hawk and the Goshawk are Accipiters. They have long tails and short, rounded wings that enable them to dart through and around trees in pursuit of other birds, their principal prey. Typically, they fly low with a series of rapid wing beats followed by a brief period of sailing, then another series of wing beats. Accipiters are associated with brush and timbered areas.

Falcons prefer open country. They include the Prairie Falcon, the Peregrine Falcon (Duck Hawk), the Merlin (Pigeon Hawk), and the dainty little American Kestrel, also called the Sparrow Hawk.

Falcons have a streamlined body, long, pointed wings and long tails. A series of strong, rapid wing beats gives them extremely fast flight in open country, and their swiftness allows them to overtake and capture other birds on the wing.

The American Kestrel is the smallest of our hawks and feeds mainly on mice and insects. It is the only one of the falcons that hovers over its intended prey. Because of its habitat and range, it is also the only Falcon or Accipiter that most people are likely to see.

The Buteos are the largest of the hawks. They are the broad-winged, broad-tailed soaring hawks that are more readily seen because of their habit of circling high in the air or perching in dead trees or on telephone poles along the road. In California they include the Red-tailed, the Red-shouldered, the Swainson's, the Rough-legged and the Ferruginous hawks.

Red-Tailed Hawks

Because of its abundance and wide distribution, the Red-tailed Hawk is the Buteos most commonly seen in California. Its shrill, rasping cry attracts attention as it circles high overhead or perches on the dead limb of a tree near the road.

The adult Red-tailed Hawk is easily identified, for when it leaves its perch on slow, measured wing beats, or turns while soaring overhead, the broad, rounded tail shows a rich, russet red, hence the name. The Red-tail is our largest hawk. As with most raptors, the female is nearly 1/3 larger than the male and may have a wing span of 56 inches.

Adult Red-tails may be found in California throughout the year. Although not truly migratory, they do adjust seasonally to areas of the most abundant prey. The appearance of a pair of Red-tails in a community should be welcomed, for this big bird is one of our most beneficial hawks.

There is conclusive evidence now that 85 to 90 percent of their diet is composed of small rodents. They take an occasional bird and infrequently snakes and other small reptiles, but for the most part, they survive on rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers, mice and other small rodents.

Red-Tailed Life Cycle

Mating and nest building begin in early spring, usually in March. This is accompanied by spectacular aerial displays by both males and females. Circling and soaring to great heights, they fold their wings and plummet to treetop level, repeating this display as much as five or six times.

Nests are located from 35 to 75 feet high in the forks of large trees. The nest is large, flat, shallow and made of sticks and twigs about 1/2 inch in diameter. Both males and females assist in nest construction. Nest sites may be used from year to year, since there is strong evidence that hawks mate for life. If the old nest is wind damaged, layers of new nesting material are added each year.

The female usually lays 2 dull-white to bluish-white eggs that are marked with a variety of irregular reddish spots and splotches. Incubation takes 28 days and is maintained almost entirely by the female. During this period the male hunts for both of them, bringing her food to the nest.

Young Hawk When hatched, the young are covered with white down. They grow slowly and require much food, which keeps both parents busy. They remain in the nest for up to 48 days. During the last 10 days or so the young, which now appear as large as the parent birds, practice flapping their wings and balancing in the wind on the edge of the nest, preparing for the days when they will launch themselves into the air.

Because of their inexperience hunting, juvenile birds may be seen eating road-killed animals. They may even kill chickens, and despite this rare occurrence, the Red-tail is known throughout the country as a "chicken hawk." As a consequence, dead hawks hanging from fences and lying under trees and power poles are mute evidence that shooters, not understanding the economic or esthetic importance of raptors, or perhaps unaware of protective laws, still kill them indiscriminately. In the rare case of an individual raptor or hawk that engages in active predation on domestic birds or animals, such a bird may be judiciously removed in accordance with current regulations.

In California, all raptors are protected by state and federal laws. Not only do raptors play an important role in the control of small destructive rodents, they are a constant source of interest and beauty from the flight of the smallest little American Kestrel hovering over a grasshopper or mouse, to the bold and rapacious flight of a Goshawk in pursuit of its prey.