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Red-Tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

 

A mighty scream echoes through the urban canyons. High above a raptor soars. As it banks you can just glimpse the brick-red of its tail. 


All over Philadelphia red-tailed hawks hunt our city, dining on unlucky pigeons, rats, snakes, and any other small animals they can catch. Follow them wherever you are and watch a top predator at work. 

Description

Red tailed hawks, like the name implies, have a brick-red tail when they’re adults. Younger hawks that have left the nest but aren’t fully mature have a banded tail that changes to red as they age. 

Whatever their age, they have light-colored underparts with black spots or streaks, and those darker markings concentrate in a band across the belly, kind of like you’d wear for weight lifting. So if a brown hawk has a red tail, you know it’s a red tailed hawk. At any age you can check for that belly pattern as well. 

These are large, bulky birds, with the larger females’ wingspans nearing five feet. They have relatively rounded wings and a short, wedge-shaped tail. 

Habitat

Red-tailed hawks inhabit a variety of open urban landscapes including parks, rowhouse neighborhoods, and even Old City. They build large nests in trees and on roofs or other structures. 

Diet

Red tailed hawks eat pretty much any smaller animal they can catch. They often eat rodents like squirrels and rats, birds like pigeons, starlings, and robins, and snakes. They will sometimes tackle larger prey such as rabbits or small cats (another great reason to keep your cat inside).

Behavior 

Red-tailed hawks form monogamous pairs and build nests towards the end of winter/early spring. They lay eggs around early April that hatch out about a month later. Towards early July the fledglings leave the nest and learn to fly. During this time they are clumsy and vulnerable, at risk of colliding with a window or getting hit by a car. 

Red-tailed hawks will soar high in the air or patiently wait on a tree limb or building ledge until a prey animal appears. The hawk will then glide down and grab it with its feet, using its talons to kill. They will also eat carrion and nestlings of other birds.  

Those other birds do their best to drive away red-tailed hawks. They will get close to the hawk and make a lot of noise, drawing other birds to take part in harassing the hawk. This is called “mobbing.” You can often observe hawks flying with crows or other birds in pursuit. 

Red-tailed hawks have perhaps the most impressive call in the avian world. Their loud, hoarse, “Kiy-aaaah!” is often dubbed into movie soundtracks for eagles, which themselves sound disappointingly wimpy. 

Observing Red-Tailed Hawks

Red-tailed hawks are easy to spot sitting on tree branches or on buildings as well as flying above the city. Be sure to listen for their loud “Ki-yaaah!” call and look around when you hear it. These hawks are also easy to spot along highways, either sitting on light poles or flying above. 


Living With Red-Tailed Hawks

Red-tailed hawks are sometimes poisoned by eating rodents that have themselves been poisoned. Help red-tailed hawks by avoiding using poison bait to control rodents. 

Hawks, like many other bird species, are at risk of colliding with windows. Do your part to protect birds by making your windows visible to them. Learn more from the American Bird Conservancy.  

More Resources

Observe red-tailed hawks on a local bird walk. Check BirdPhilly.org to find a walk near you. 

Learn about red-tailed hawks at All About Birds

See where red-tailed hawks have been spotted on eBird and iNaturalist

 

Everywhere you look (and listen) in Philadelphia you can find red-tailed hawks. Learn about our beefy, adaptable, and fearsome raptors. Thanks to our partners at Grid Magazine for producing the video and to the William Penn Foundation for their support.