Illustration by Donald L. Malick
The red-tailed hawk’s widespread breeding range makes it the “default raptor” in most of the United States and Canada. It utilizes a wide range of habitats, from wooded to open areas, farmland to urban settings. Red-tails come in a variety of color morphs, from pale to rufous to dark, average size varies from north (largest) to south (smallest). Prey species include rodents and small mammals, snakes, occasionally birds, even carrion. They are prone to albinism, occasionally appearing totally white. Polytypic (13 ssp.; 6 in North America). Length 22" (56 cm); wingspan 50" (127 cm).
Identification A large, chunky, short-tailed raptor, often seen hovering or kiting in a stiff breeze. All show a diagnostic dark patagial mark on the leading edge of the underwing, more easily seen in light- morph birds. The bulging secondaries give the wing a sinuous trailing edge. Juveniles have shorter wings and longer tails than adults, but when seen perched the wing tips usually fall short of the tail. Most adults have a reddish tail, varying in intensity by color morph and subspecies. Light-morph adult: occurs in all subspecies. A brown head is offset by darker malar stripe, white throat (except in some western populations and Florida). Back and wings are brown, with white spots on scapulars, giving the appearance of a whitish V on the back. Chest and underparts white, crossed by a belly band of spots or streaks (darkest in western and Florida subspecies, missing in Fuertes’). Tail is orange to brick-red with a dark terminal band and often with multiple thinner bands (western). Light-morph juvenile: brown head with a dark malar stripe, often with a lighter superciliary line. Throat is white (eastern) to streaked darker (western). Dark back and wings are mottled with white on the scapulars, forming a light V. Primaries are lighter than the secondaries, giving a 2-tone look to the wing. Below, white undersides are separated by a belly band of heavy dark streaks. Tail is brownish with multiple thin, dark bands, often with a slightly wider terminal band. Underwings are light, coverts occasionally washed with rufous (western), flight feathers tipped dark and lightly barred, and a pale rectangle at the base of the primaries. Dark adults: darker brown above, usually without white spots on wing coverts. Dark belly is offset by rufous to black chest. Tail is rufous, with thin dark bands and wider subterminal band. On rufous morph, undertail coverts are unbanded rufous, uppertail coverts barred brown. Underwing coverts are rufous with variable dark barring, patagial mark is visible. Darkest birds are uniformly dark, the dark undertail coverts are barred rufous. Tail is dark rufous with thin barring and a wider dark subterminal band. Dark juveniles: above, similar to light-morph with white speckles on secondaries, often darker on the head and throat. Variable below, they are heavily streaked with rufous across chest, dark belly band with white or rufous streaks. Underwing coverts are mottled rufous or dark, with patagial mark often hard to discern. Tail is brown with many darker bands, like light-morph Western. Krider’s red-tail: head whitish with little or no malar stripe. Back and upperwings heavily mottled with white, underparts almost pure white with reduced patagial mark on underwing. Adult has orangish tail fading to white at the base; immature has light tail banded with dark bars. Harlan’s red-tail: light-morph (rare) adults similar to Krider’s, with light head but dark malar stripe, darker wings and flight feathers. Tail has a gray subterminal band and gray mottling fading to white at tail base. Dark-morph adult is blackish, similar to other dark-morph birds, but with variable white mottling or streaking on chest and belly. Tail is gray with wide, dark subterminal band. Flight: Wingbeats are heavy, usually slow. Red-tails glide with wings level, occasionally soar in a slight dihedral. Immatures show a light rectangle at the base of the primaries.
Geographic Variation Eastern borealis is found west to the Great Plains, Western calurus west from the Great Plains, north into Canada, and south to the range of Fuertes’ fuertesi in Arizona, New Mexico, southern Texas. Alaskan alacensis along the Alaskan coast, to the Pacific Northwest, Harlan’s harlani from northwestern Canada into southern Alaska, and umbrinus in Florida.
Similar Species Red-shouldered hawk has light crescents at base of primaries in all plumages. Adult ferruginous hawk has mostly white underparts with dark legs, slimmer wing silhouette. Juveniles lack patagial mark, have dark crescent at the end of underwing coverts and pale primaries. Dark ferruginous has white comma at end of underwing coverts, unbanded tail.
Voice A husky scream, rising then dropping in pitch shee-eeee-arrr.
Status and Distribution Found across North America, into Mexico, and across Caribbean. Migration: late fall along mountain ridges, the Great Lakes, fewer along the East Coast. Reluctant to cross open water, late July–August movement along the south shore of Lake Ontario is primarily juveniles in postbreeding dispersal. Spring peak is March–early April along the south shores of the Great Lakes. Winter: many northern breeders winter in the southern United States, subspecies mixing together. Vagrant: casual to Bermuda and New Foundland.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
Identify your backyard visitors in a flash! Just answer four simple questions to search our database of 150 backyard birds common to Canada and the U.S.
How much do you know about the feathered visitors to your backyard? Put your avian IQ to the test with this quiz.