Species group: Birds of Prey
Other common names: Red-tailed Buzzard; Redtail; Chicken Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
The widespread, if extremely variable, Red-tailed Hawk is probably the best-known American hawk, because it is so easily viewed over such a wide range of territory in a variety of habitats. A famous pair regularly nests on a skyscraper in central Manhattan, yet other pairs may be found in remote wilderness in Alaska or northern Canada.
As a common, tough, and highly successful species, the Red-tailed Hawk is one of two species generally allowed to apprentice falconers in the United States. However, never assume that any hawk will be “easy.” Because of the licensing and expertise required to be a responsible owner of a bird of prey, the following information is offered only as a hint of what you will need to learn to work with Red-tailed Hawks. There is no substitute for hands-on training, which we strongly recommend that you pursue before trying to acquire any bird of prey.
With up to 16 subspecies and multiple color morphs, the Red-tailed Hawk can be one of the most visually interesting birds to observe in the wild. Its behavior is equally varied, as it may be seen hunting from a perch or stooping from 1,000 feet. Whether you live in city, suburb, or far out in the country, if you're in North America and you're willing to get out and look around, you're likely to find some Red-tailed Hawks to observe.
Despite their varied plumage, this large hawk is not usually too tough to identify. Adult Red-Tailed Hawks possess the red tail in question, but perched birds of any age or plumage usually show a pale mottled V on the back and a splotchy “belly band” in front. Birds flying overhead are identified by a distinct dark bar on the leading edge of the wing – often called the “patagial” mark. Females are larger, sometimes substantially so.
Male: 1,028 grams (36 oz.)
Female: 1,224 grams (43 oz.)
49 centimeters (19 in.)
25 - 30 years
Behavior / temperament:
An under-stimulated, overfed Red-tailed Hawk may indeed be an indolent bird, but in the past, well-trained birds were highly regarded by many falconers for their skill in capturing rabbits, hare, quail, or other prey. Well-known falconer Frank L. Beebe noted a Red-tail isn't as easily lost as many popular falconry birds, because of the strong attachment they can form both to their trainer and territory. That said, the explosive entrance of Harris's Hawk onto the falconry scene means that many people today have turned their attention away from the Red-tail. Don't underestimate the Red-tail's intelligence. A bird that cannot be flown for some reason -- perhaps because it's a rescue bird in a licensed facility – will need an enriched environment to engage its mind.
A good Red-Tailed Hawk pen, aviary, or mews will provide shade from direct sunlight in the summer and protection from extremes of winter weather. A roof that completely covers the structure is stronger and offers more protection from high winds. However, keeping the Red-Tailed Hawk entirely indoors is probably a bad idea, as they are watchful birds that seem to benefit from having an open mesh wall or walls that allow them to keep an eye on the outdoor scene. Like most birds of prey, they will enjoy some clean, shallow water for bathing.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a carnivore that needs to consume some whole prey in order to allow its digestive system to work properly. Successful breeders and falconers warn against the practice of only feeding one food, such as day old chicks or jack rabbits. A varied diet that includes chicks, rabbits, rodents, quail, pigeon, and more is much healthier. They should be supplied with drinking water. In the wild, the Red-tail sometimes misses its prey. To keep this species from becoming overweight and indolent, and to mimic natural food consumption patterns, many experts advise a day of fasting each week – another reason to get hands-on information about how to properly weigh your bird and adjust the diet for its best health.
Written by Elaine Radford
Apprentice Falconers, great beginner bird, remarkable raptors, wholly unique relationship
large time commitment, risks, raw meat, big responsibility, constant fitness plan
proper documents, North America, common birds, rehab facility, falconry regulations
Many years ago I came across a group of guys at work that were talking about a hawk they had just accidentally killed. I never learned the details of what happened to lead to the hawks death, but soon we discovered two baby red-tail hawks. At first glance, they reminded me of a tiny owl because of how short and chubby they were. Of course, they would turn out completely different as they aged and grew out their new feathers.
One of the babies was very timid, and a guy picked it up without trouble. However, the other would lay on his back, opening his beak and raising one claw up at us. I could immediately tell that he was a fighter. Unfortunately, the same guy tried to pick up the little fighter and it latched its talon onto the guys finger. Needless to say, the guy was in immense pain and threw the poor tiny "bird of prey". The bird wasn't mature enough to fly anyway, so it broke the left wing. The man took the timid bird home, illegally mind you, but I knew I couldn't keep any without a permit. Thankfully, I had previously met some local falconers at a fair, and I still had their contact information. So, I called one of the trainers and asked him if he knew what I could do with it. Within about 20 minutes, I had the baby hawk loaded up and was driving it to a rehab facility across town.
I couldn't keep the hawk with me without the proper documents, but I could go see the baby and help train it.
Falconry, regardless of how you feel about the "sport", is quite fascinating. However, these birds never do become companion birds. They are wild birds of prey, and the best relationship you will have is a symbiotic relationship. They will fly for you and they will hunt for you, so long as you still provide food, but that is about it. Don't expect them to snuggle up on your shoulder. Still, falconry is considered a noble sport in some circles. It takes a lot of dedication and discipline. I even noticed that if you miss as little as two days of working with your bird, you will lose a lot of progress. However, the little falcon that I found, which we named Kal-El, was not being raised for falconry. We were just using the techniques to get him to flying strength after we rehabbed the broken wing. Unfortunately, with all of the contact with humans, he became too comfortable around us. So we couldn't release him back into the wild. Instead, he was sent to a specialist where he received special training to work at an airport. Basically, he would be there to scare away the small birds, rodents and rabbits. After 3 years of service, I don't know if that is the average or not, he was retired. Once retired, Kal-El toured with some trainers at a few renaissance faires to demonstrate flying techniques. Now if anyone wants to see my red-tailed friend, they can visit him at a beautiful zoo in Guadalajara, Mexico. So if you have ever thought of keeping one of these remarkable raptors, just know what you are getting into. It is a lot of work, but if you want to be a falconer, then it can be a lot of reward as well. As far as the other baby bird, he escaped from the guy that took him, so I am sure he is soaring the skies to this day..
From jarrodr Apr 18 2014 12:54PM
Red-tails are NOT a pet... but still a joy to be around!
From TBrown Mar 7 2017 11:09PM