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Red-Tailed Hawk: The Most Misidentified Bird in North America

November 23, 2021

The Red-Tailed Hawk is one of the most commonly misidentified birds in North America. Throughout this blog post, I will be discussing how to identify Red-Tailed Hawks, what they sound like, and their colors. Red-tailed Hawks are large birds that can grow up to two feet tall with a wingspan of four feet. They have an orange beak with brown eyes that range from yellowish gold to deep red or rust color. Their feathers vary in shades of gray and brown depending on location but are always lighter than the underside which ranges from light cream to dark earth tones.


Hunting Behavior

You're likely to observe Red-tailed Hawks flying in wide loops high over a field. In strong winds, they may face into the wind and hover without flapping their wings, keeping their eyes on the ground. They crouch slowly and deliberately before diving  rapidly at great speed, wings forming a triangle. Red-tailed Hawks make a very loud  screaming whistle sound when they are flying over open areas or hunting other birds in the sky.


Key Features

When Red-Tailed Hawks breed, their feathers turn almost completely white but will return to brown once spring has ended. Red-tailed hawks are mostly brown with darker wings and tail feathers. Red-tailed Hawks can be found throughout North America, excluding the Mojave Desert in California, Hawaii, and Alaska. The bill is small and dark, in the hooked form popular with raptors, and the head may appear tiny when compared to the body's broad structure. The red-tailed hawk's head, neck, and breast are all yellow, like the color of exposed areas in many other accipitrids. At a distance of three feet, immature birds may be readily identified by their golden irises. The iris darkens gradually from a brilliant gold into a rich brown as the bird matures over three to four years. Adults typically have a dark brown lower edge of the wings against a mostly pale wing with light brownish barring, as seen in flight. The underwing coverts are generally all dark or off-white, contrasting with a distinctive black patagium plumage. The adult and juvenile wing colors are similar, but typical pale morph immatures have somewhat darker brownish markings.

Related: Bird Identification Basic Field Skills


Vocalization and Sounds

The red-tailed hawk's call is a hoarse, rasping scream that begins at a high pitch and slurs downward and lasts 2 to 3 seconds. In the United States, red-tailed hawks are known for their distinctive call. The sound is said to be similar to a steam whistle. When hunting or soaring, the red-tailed hawk commonly vocalizes, but it vocalizes most loudly and persistently in defiance or anger as a result of an predator or a rival hawk's incursion into its territory. Nestlings may chirp with a "soft, drowsy sound" that evolves into loud screams as they mature, but these are more likely to be a soft whistle rather than the adult's shrill shrieks. A high-pitched, metallic sound has been reported amid a sky dance. During courtship, hawks may make a low-key ducklike nasal sound, kind of like a purr when they are comfortable.

The loud, shrieking scream of an adult red-tailed hawk is frequently used in television programs and other media, often the creature shown is not a red-tailed hawk. The croak is a call made by a number of animals, including red-tailed hawks and common ravens. It's also been attributed to the bald eagle, which media contributes to the widespread incorrect belief that it makes a "bald eagle cry." The actual vocalizations of a bald eagle are considerably softer and more chirpy than those of a red-tailed hawk.


Nesting Environment

The nests of Red-tailed Hawks are commonly found in the crowns of towering trees, which gives them a panoramic view of the terrain. The Red-tailed Hawk's natural habitat is any open space, which includes desert, scrublands, parks, roadsides, fields and almost other open area. The Red-tailed Hawks nest is a bulky platform of sticks that is lined on the inside with bark, fresh foliage, animal hair and other soft materials. Red-tailed Hawks can have up to 5 egg clutches in one year, with the incubation period lasting a little over a month. Once born, the fledglings can take up to 50 days to become a young adult. While learning how to hunt and sustain itself, the young adult may stay with the parents for several more weeks before leaving on it's own.

Related: Best Guide to Start Bird Watching


General Diet

The majority of Red-tailed Hawk meals are made up of mammals. Voles, mice, wood rats, rabbits, snowshoe hares, jackrabbits, and ground squirrels are among the most common. It isn't uncommon for a Red-Tail to snack up other small reptiles such as snakes or lizards. Red-Tailed hawks have also been known to catch other birds in the air during flight which they will then rip into tiny pieces to consume. These hawks are a versatile predatory bird that will prey on almost anything they can get their talons on.


Threats and Status

Red-Tailed hawks have many predators such as large birds like Golden Eagles or Bald eagles which are one of their biggest threats. Red tailed hawks are also frequently killed by automobiles, as they tend to hunt along roadsides. The other common threats to hawks are parasites, rodent poison, pesticides and habitat degradation. Although Red-tailed Hawks are not endangered species, their population has decreased due to the stated factors above.

Related: How to Educate and Promote Environmental Awareness in 2021



This bird is uncommon in backyards (unless yours is a huge open field). Red-tailed Hawks live in open habitats like farmlands, deserts and coastal areas. Red tailed hawks can be found throughout North America but are considered uncommon in backyards as they prefer large spaces to hunt for prey such as rodents and rabbits. Red-Tailed Hawk not only look alike other birds of prey but sound similar too due to their screams.

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