Musings of a Renaissance Man

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk by Bryan Brandenburg

Red-Tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is a large Buteo bird of prey which breeds from western Alaska and northern Canada to Panama and the West Indies. Males are typically smaller than females, generally weighing between 800–1100 grams (1.8-2.4 pounds) and measuring 45–56 cm (1’5.7″-1’10”)in length. Females typically average between 1100–1300 grams (1.8-2.9 pounds) and measure 50–65 cm (1’7.7″-2’1.6″)in length.

This is one of three species colloquially known in the United States as the “chickenhawk.” It is the most common North American hawk and the raptor most frequently taken from the wild (and later returned to the wild) for falconry in the United States.


The breeding habitat is open country with high perches. They build a stick nest in a large tree, in a cactus, or on a cliff ledge 35 m or higher above ground; they may also nest on man-made structures. Both sexes build the sturdy nest, made of different sized twigs and sticks, lined with fresh green foliage and evergreen sprigs. The fresh sprigs are regularly replaced during incubation. Up to four eggs may be laid at daily intervals. The shells are colored a dull or bluish-white with a granulated or smooth surface, never glossy. There may be some splotches of various shades of brown. Incubation is by the female from 28 to 35 days, during which time she is fed by the male. The young are able to fly at about 45 days.

In most of the United States, Red-tailed Hawks are permanent residents, but northern breeding birds migrate south in winter. Throughout their range in the U.S., Red-tailed Hawks receive special legal protections under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. They have a complex relationship with humans, capable of both controlling rodent and other mammalian pests, and of on occasion being one, taking valuable fowl (which has led to them being one of the species described as a Chickenhawk).

Visual Acuity

Red-tailed Hawks rely on their visual acuity, which is believed to be eight times greater than that of a human, to catch prey.Red-tailed Hawks prefer to wait on a high perch and swoop down on prey; they also patrol open areas in flight. They mainly eat small mammals, birds and reptiles. Their favorite prey varies with regional and seasonal availability but includes most types of rodents, rabbits, pheasant, grouse, quail, rattle snakes, copperheads, lizards, and, when near the water’s edge, carp and catfish. Those that live in cities may prefer pigeons and starlings, both of which are plentiful in many urban areas.