This broad-winged hawk is the most common and widespread hawk in North America, occurring year round throughout the U.S. and during the breeding season in Canada and up into Alaska. Plumage coloration is variable with a mottled brown back and light undersurface with a dark brown stripe across the belly. The rusty orange upper tail is an indentifying characteristic and the tips of the tail feathers are white. The dark brown head is also distinctive. Males are smaller than females, which may weigh over 4 pounds. Red-tails have a loud downward trending screeching call.
Red tails hunt from a perch or while flying over their favored open prairie habitat. However, they also are found in deserts, coniferous and deciduous forests, agricultural lands, and even urban areas. They take a variety of vertebrate prey, including small mammals, such as ground squirrels, mice, voles, rabbits and bats. They readily prey on snakes and lizards, possibly avoiding venomous snakes. Studies of feeding behavior in San Joaquin County California found that three times as many gopher snakes were taken compared with rattlesnakes, even though rattlers were five time more abundant in the area than gopher snakes. Red-tails even take frogs and toads. They will also eat birds as large as ring-necked pheasants. The ability to take large pheasants has led to the species sometimes being referred to as “chicken hawks”, though their predation on domesticated fowl is rare. Even carrion may be consumed. Prey may be eaten on the ground or carried to a high perch.
Males engage in aerial courtship displays, calling as they circle and dive, and even catching birds and passing them to the female in flight. A nest may be constructed in a tree or cliff face, as well as in buildings, towers or large cacti. The nest is a bowl shape built from heavy twigs and lined with softer leafy material. The 2-4 nestlings are tended by the female and the male brings food which she tears into chunks to feed to the young. After a month or so she will just drop food into the nest and let the chicks feed on their own. Young hawks fledge after 6 weeks to a month and are cared for by the parents for the first few of weeks out of the nest.
Red-tails are migratory, but while some populations only move regionally others may travel as far as from Alaska to Central America during the fall and spring. Mobbing of Red-tails by a variety of songbirds is a common occurrence and disturbs the hawks hunting behavior, forcing it to escape the harassment and leave the area.
Red-tailed hawks may live 6-7 years in the wild. The main causes of mortality are electrocution on power lines, collisions with vehicles or structures, hunting, and eating poisoned baits set out for rodents and other pests. The Audubon Society does not see much change in Red-tailed hawk range with climate warming, but high temperatures can impact nestling survival. Red-tailed hawks are often captured and trained by falconers, but only birds under a year of age outside the nest may be legally taken.