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Red-Tailed Hawk

"The wild hawk stood with the down on his beak And stared with his foot on the prey."
Alfred Lord Tennyson, The Poet's Song

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RedTailed Hawk Jonas by Bill Woodall

Jonas, a four year old male, was struck by a car in North Carolina
Photo by Bill Woodall

    Red-Tailed Hawks

 Buteo Jamaicensis
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Accipitiridae
Genus: Buteo

 If you look up in the eastern part of North America and see a large hawk soaring over any open meadow or field, chances are it is a red tailed hawk.  Red-tails are the commonest large
soaring hawk (buteo) in eastern North America, but until they get their red tail when they breed at age three, they are also very easy to confuse with other hawks.  This is complicated by the fact that they have many color phases usually listed as light and dark, and in some parts of their range, they have different names.

 Red-tails average one and 1/2 to three and 1/2 pounds, are 18 inches to 2 feet in length, and have wing spans from 3 to 5 feet, with males about a third smaller than females, which have larger and broader heads, wider wings, more powerful thighs and feet, and a heavier and blockier build all around. Males, on the other hand, are more agile in flight, and faster.

  Red-tails feed mostly on rodents, although they are very adaptable and will take such birds as pigeons, crows, gulls, game birds and waterfowl, when they can’t find rodents.  In the Western deserts, they live as much on rattlesnakes and lizards, as they do on rodents. Their eyesight is so much better than ours that when we see them as small dots in the sky, they can still see a rat in the grass. They attack in a slow, controlled dive with legs and talons outstretched  to grasp their prey, in contrast to the falcon’s high-speed stoop.

 Red tails have thrived under the expansion of agriculture and the interstate highway system across the country. Since 80% of their prey consists of rats and mice, they are the farmer's most useful friends, and the highway system provides perching poles for them to view the rodents in the grassy median between the driving lanes. The good news about the highway system is that we see so many red-tails while driving, while the bad news is that too many red-tails, are struck by cars, as they dive at their quarry. In addition, our penchant for tearing down forests may anger us tree huggers, but it definitely has a fan in the red-tail who prefers to hunt in open fields.

  One of the sad ironies of our stewardship of the earth is that we routinely kill the animals that are most helpful to us. Just as local bats eat their weight in mosquitoes every night, and just as king snakes, black snakes and  red-tail hawks have diets that consist mostly of rats and mice, we reward them by killing them when we come across them. We recently took in a beautiful female red-tail, who had been severely injured in a leg hold trap. It is unconscionable that this form of hunting, which targets a few species, but indiscrimately kills many others, is legal in most states, never mind the slow, painful death it inflicts.

  Red-Tail mating season is from March until May, and red-tails are noted for their spectacular courtship flights, in which the male and female repeatedly dive, lock talons and spin a few times before going to a tree to mate.  Red-tails are monogomous, and both male and female work on constructing a bulky, flat nest out of sticks, usually 35 to 75 feet up in a branch fork of a large tree. Nests may be used year after year, with new layers added, as wind jostles and removes exposed sections of the nest. Occasionally, red-tails will lose their nests to great horned owls, who do not construct nests, but nest earlier in the year, often appropriating red-tail nests.

In New York, the female red-tail lays two whitish-bluish, blotchy eggs, in March or April, which she incubates for 28 to 30 days, while the male hunts, and brings food back to the nest for both of them. The white down-covered chicks remain in the nest for about 48 days, and as they approach mature size, begin practicing, stretching their wings in the wind, in preparation for launching out of the nest as fledglings.

The further north a Red-Tail's territory, the more likely they are to migrate, usually in early October,  on clear days following following foul weather and the first cold front. Red-Tail watchers often wait on ridges to watch the red tails pass.

Red-tails are confident, relatively relaxed raptors who work well with handlers. This is why a falconer's first bird is often a red-tail.

  The Red-Tails have such a beautiful cry, you may have heard it during any movie featuring a bald eagle, which has a not-so-beautiful cry. Just as movie-makers have us believing that attacks by grizzlies and wolves are likely events during our forays into the wild, so do they routinely substitute the red-tail’s cry for the eagle’s to create that magic wildlife scene. "Harlan's hawk" is a very dark Canadian sub-species of the Red-Tail, which resembles a golden eagle's color. There are about fourteen sub-species in all.

  Jonas and Vicky were each struck by cars, Jonas in Jonas Ridge, North Carolina, and Vicky in Vicksburg, Michigan.

 Gary and Steve

Jonas with Wendy

Wendy & Jonas, photo by Bill Woodall

Jonas & Vicky

Jonas & Vicky

Red-Tailed Hawk Range
Manning Jonas to the gloveManning Jonas to the gloveManning Jonas to the glove
Jonas & Wendy
Alex with Jonas
Alex and Jonas
Alex and Jonas

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Adirondack Wildlife Refuge & Rehabilitation Center

Steve & Wendy Hall
PO Box 555, 977 Springfield Road, Wilmington, NY 12997
Toll Free: 855-Wolf-Man (855-965-3626)
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