Red-tailed hawks are one of the most common raptors in North America, and can be found from coast to coast and as far north as Alaska.
Living in any landscape from mountains to prairies to eastern woodlands and even city centers, these birds are one of the most iconic American birds.
1. You’ve Heard Their Scream On Film
You know that you’re watching a show about the wilderness when you hear that distinctive shrill, rasping cry that you probably assume is an eagle. However, it’s actually a red-tailed hawk that you’re listening to.
Their cry is more impressive than that of an eagle, so it’s usually used instead.
2. They Can Live Up To 30 Years
Red-tailed hawks can live for a long time; once they’ve survived to adulthood their usual lifespan is from 13 to 25 years in the wild, and one hawk in Michigan was tagged in 1981 and found 30 years later, still alive.
Red-tailed hawks raised in captivity have been known to live for up to 28 years.
However, they do have a high rate of infant mortality, with an estimated 36% of them dying within a year of hatching. Many fall victim to great horned owls, coyotes, and raccoons.
3. They Have A Dramatic Courtship Ritual
Red-tailed hawks are ready to breed in their third year after hatching.
The male red-tailed hawk puts on an impressive show when he’s trying to impress a potential mate.
First, he plummets down towards the ground at high velocity, and then pulls up and shoots back into the sky. Sometimes, he brings an animal with him on his return, which he then passes to the female for her to eat.
After several of these dives, he descends upon the female from above and briefly touches her with his talons. Sometimes, they then clasp onto each other and spiral down towards the ground before separating and flying back up.
4. They Usually Often Mate For Life
Once they’ve gotten the courtship out of the way, red-tailed hawks usually stay together for life. If one of them dies, the other will go through the same courtship ritual with a new mate.
Sometimes, the pair may stay together during the breeding season, and then separate within their shared territory until the next spring when they breed again.
5. They Keep The Same Nest For Years
Red-tailed hawks like to build their nests high above the ground, often 120 feet in the air.
While trees are the most common locations for a red-tailed hawk nest, they will also use ledges on the sides of steep cliffs or the arms of large cacti, while in urban areas, they may set up shop on a tall building.
Nests are large and bowl-shaped, made of twigs, and lined with materials such as corncobs, pine needles, or aspen catkins. They take up to a week to build, with the female doing most of the work, finishing the interior in preparation for laying her eggs.
Once a nest has been constructed, they prefer to renovate and add onto a home rather than build a new one every year. With each renovation, the nest may become larger.
Red-tailed hawks can have more than one nest across their territory, and may even spend some time fixing them all up before deciding on which one to use that year.
6. They Fiercely Defend Their Territory
Red-tailed hawks typically stake out a claim on a territory from a half to two square miles in size.
Both sexes have their own responsibilities in defending their territory. Males tend to patrol the perimeter to fend off intruders, while the females stay with the nest to defend against attacks.
If you approach too close to the site of a nest, you will hear her screeching to scare you off.
In the northern parts of their range, red-tailed hawks migrate south in winter, but in most of the continental United States, they stay year-round. Those that do migrate return to the same territory and nests year after year.
7. They Will Eat Almost Any Meat
Red-tailed hawks are carnivores who exclusively eat meat.
85 to 90% of their diet is composed of small to medium-sized mammals such as mice, rabbits, and squirrels. They also eat medium-sized birds, snakes, and lizards.
It’s common to see a red-tailed hawk perched on a telephone line next to a country road, eyes fixed on the ground as he waits patiently for prey.
While they prefer living animals, they will eat carrion such as road kill, especially in the winter when live animals may be harder to hunt.
Your pets are probably safe from attack by a red-tailed hawk, as most are too large to be carried away by these birds. However, kittens or small breeds of dogs have very occasionally been taken.
And children are definitely safe; even newborns are too heavy to be lifted up by a red-tailed hawk.
8. They Have Excellent Eyesight
Red-tailed hawks have no trouble spotting their prey, as they have excellent eyesight, 8 times sharper than humans.
They can zero in on a mouse from 100 feet in the air, swoop swiftly down, grab the victim in their sharp talons, and carry it back to their perch to eat.
Red-tailed hawks have an extra eyelid, called a nictitating membrane, which originates in the inner corner of the eye and spreads outwards when they blink.
It’s used to shield their eyes when they dive at high velocity, and also provides protection from the claws of their prey.
9. They Are Common Across North America
The Latin name for the red-tailed hawk is Buteo jamaicensis, so named because the first one to be identified and studied was in Jamaica in 1781.
They certainly aren’t limited to that island, however; there are probably 2 million red-tailed hawks across the Caribbean and all but the far north of North America, living in every imaginable geographic landscape with the exception of the frozen tundra of the far north.
They even live in densely-populated urban centers, nesting on high buildings.
10. Some Have Become Famous Celebrities
One of the most famous red-tailed hawks is Pale Male in New York City, who has been observed since 1991 in his nest on the ledge of an exclusive condo overlooking Central Park.
He’s had several mates over the years, all of whom have died, but he just keeps finding new females and has become a much-loved celebrity.