Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)


To hear the Red-tailed Hawk, click here.

DESCRIPTION and SENSES: Red-tailed hawks are large raptors (birds of prey). They weigh 1 - 4 pounds and have a wingspan of 4 feet. Males and females look alike, but the female is larger. These hawks have dark brown backs with light-colored bellies streaked with brown. Their tails are a rusty reddish brown color. Their tails turn red when they are 2 years old; (before that, their tails are brown). Hawks have excellent eyesight and can spot a mouse from 100 feet away. They can live as far north as Alaska and as far south as Central America. Although many red-tailed hawks migrate, the ones in Florida usually stay on the same territory all year because it doesn’t get that cold here. Red-tailed hawks do not usually live deep in the woods. They like to live along the edge of a forest because it is easier to catch mice in an open area. Red-tailed hawks and great horned owls both live on the forest edge, but they don’t have to compete (fight) for food. Since the hawk hunts during day, and the owl hunts at night, they never see each other!

FLIGHT and HUNTING: Red-tailed hawks are active fliers; they flap a lot, and hardly ever soar. When they see a mouse, they dive straight down (at up to 120 mph) to catch it with sharp talons (claws). They also hunt by sitting on a perch and watching for prey. Then they pounce on it! This perch can be a fence post or a dead tree. A good territory has many perches. Red-tailed hawks will eat any animal that is raccoon-sized or smaller, even pets. 85% of their diet is made up of mammals, like mice, squirrels, and rabbits. (Bald eagles and ospreys eat mostly fish.) About 10% of the hawk’s prey are birds like ducks or woodpeckers. The rest of their diet (only 5%) is made up of snakes, frogs, fish, and grasshoppers. When young hawks are learning to hunt, they find a low perch to sit on and swoop down on the prey. They are not good enough yet to attack from the sky. It takes a lot of practice to be able to catch a bird or a bat that is flying fast. There are easier ways to get a meal. For example, red-tailed hawks are attracted to forest fires. Small animals run from the fire, and the hawks swoop down to catch a quick dinner.

NESTING and RAISING BABIES: Red-tailed hawks mate for life. During the year, they do not stay in the same tree with each other, but they do share a territory and defend it against other raptors. They often use the same nest year after year (if an owl doesn’t get it first!) They start building a nest or fixing up an old one in January or February. The nests are 2 - 3 feet across, made of twigs, bark, and green pine needles. Nests are usually in the tallest tree. During courtship (dating), the mother and father will fly together, diving and rolling, even locking talons in mid-air. After courtship, the mother usually lays 3 bluish white eggs with brown spots. The mother sits on the eggs to keep them warm, and the father hunts and feeds her. After 30 days, the babies hatch. They are covered with white down (fluff). The babies learn to fly when they are 1 months old, but they still depend on their parents for food. During the summer, the fledglings (young fliers) follow their parents around, watching and learning how to hunt. Because red-tailed hawks are very territorial, it may be hard for the young hawks to find a new place to live. Other adults will chase them away if the youngsters come into their territory. When the young hawks are 2-3 years old, they can find a mate and have their own babies. If a raccoon or a storm destroys the eggs, the mother will lay new ones. Red-tailed hawks usually live 6-7 years in the wild. They are easily disturbed when nesting, so don’t go up to a tree with a large nest. The parents might leave the babies if you upset them. It is against the law to have a hawk for a pet or to hunt them or even collect their feathers. If you find a hawk nest, watch it from far away through binoculars. You could see some amazing things!

Click here to see some other Florida Hawks

Resources:

"Biological Data and Habitat Requirement for Buteo jamaicensis," http://www.fs.fed.us/data…/biological_data_and_habitat_requirements.htm. (1/28/98)

Green, John. Birds of Prey Coloring Book. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1989.

Henson Robinson Zoo Education Dept. "Red-Tailed Hawk," http://www.hensonrobinsonzoo.org/i002.html. (1/28/98)

Raptor Rehabilitation of Kentucky. "Red-Tailed Hawk," http://www.aye.net/~raptors/raptors/redtail.htm (1/28/98).

Stokes, Donald & Lillian . A Guide to Bird Behavior, Vol. III. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1989.

Terres, John K. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Random House, 1996.

Provided by the E. Dale Joyner Nature Preserve at Pelotes Island

St. Johns River Power Park, Jacksonville Electric Authority, Florida Power & Light

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