Rural Perspectives: The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

The majestic red-tailed hawk is the most common and largest
hawk in North America. Photo credit Diane Constable

by Diane Constable

The beautiful and majestic red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) often can be seen soaring over fields or perched on an electric pole or tall tree while using its keen eyesight to search for a meal. These meals consist mostly of small mammals such as mice, voles, squirrels, rabbits, snakes and other reptiles, and large insects.

It is the most common and largest hawk in North America, with a height of about 2 feet and a wingspan a bit over 4 feet. As with most hawks and eagles, the female is a few inches larger than the male. The red-tailed hawk can be identified easily by its size and rusty-red tail. Most have a light chest with a brown-streaked band across their midsection. That said, the species has a lot of variation in the color of its plumage.

We have more red-tails in the winter than in summer because some that live in the Far North will migrate to our area, while the locals generally do not migrate.

The red-tail has spectacular aerial displays when courting—soaring in circles high in the sky and sometimes clutching feet and tumbling earthward. It makes its nest of sticks, moss and leaves and lays two to four eggs in early spring. The hawk hatches in about four weeks and stays in the nest for about seven weeks. By that time, it is nearly the size of its parents. The red-tail hawk mates for life. Both the male and female help raise and train the chicks.

Fun Fact: Because the red-tails have a remarkably loud and screeching call, the scream is dubbed into movies and TV to substitute for the unimpressive calls of eagles and other birds of prey.

Diane Gray Constable

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