Raptors can be challenging to distinguish and identify as more than just a general bird of prey, but whether you’re getting started birding or wanting more confidence with raptors, this week’s featured bird is the one you need to learn most intimately. Widespread and variable, the red-tailed hawk is a great bird to learn so that not only can you recognize it, but you can also recognize when you aren’t seeing it and so can positively identify other birds of prey.
Name: Red-Tailed Hawk
Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
Scientific Family: Accipitridae (Hawks and Eagles)
Habitat: Prefers soaring over open country with scattered trees or poles for perches, and so long as the habitat is open, this bird is adaptable. Found in grasslands and prairies, deserts and arid scrub, pastures, agricultural fields, parks and even relatively open forest. A common sight alongside roadways in open areas, where it perches on poles and scans for prey.
Range: Year-round resident of much of the continental United States, though absent from northern Great Plains areas except during summer, when its breeding range also extends into Canada and Alaska. Also found year-round throughout the Caribbean and central Mexico, with some winter migrants appearing along coastal Mexico and into central America.
These birds have the distinctive “raptor” shape with broad, bulging wings and rudder-like tail, but the difficulty with red-tailed hawks is their variability in color. Some are lighter, some are darker, and some are every shade in between. The key field marks to note that distinguish these birds of prey are the dark patagium on the wings – the leading edge of the wing from the shoulder to the midpoint – along with the spotted belly band that marks the otherwise plain, pale abdomen, the dark commas at the wrists of the wings, and of course, the red tail with its thin black band near the tip, though that band isn’t always noticeable, especially if the tail is worn. If just a couple of these key field marks can be seen, you can be confident that you’re seeing a red-tailed hawk, even if other markings, colorations or traits aren’t immediately visible.
The rule of thumb I’ve learned with red-tailed hawks is this – at first, assume every raptor soaring over open country is a red-tailed hawk, because it probably is, given how widespread and familiar these birds can be. Then, look for anything that might dispute that instant diagnosis, such as missing field marks or a general appearance that just doesn’t fit, and work your way through the identification in that way. By quickly noting the field marks of the red-tailed hawk, it’s easier than starting from scratch with a raptor that may be soaring far away in questionable light conditions.
I’ve had a range of amazing experiences with these birds, and they can certainly be memorable. Personally, my most memorable encounter was watching one of these tenacious birds harass a bald eagle perched alongside a river in an agricultural area. The hawk was fussed about the eagle’s presence, and didn’t give up with screeching, diving and generally making a nuisance of itself. Eventually, the eagle did leave, but the entire attitude was one of indifference, despite how agitated the hawk was during the interaction.
With such beautiful birds, however, I’ve learned we must never be indifferent to red-tailed hawks – you never know where you might see one, or what it may do!