Bird of the Week


Photo courtesy Charles Martinez

This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the red-tailed hawk.

Whether observed in shrublands, grasslands, fragmented woodlands or mountainous country, it may be easy to take this ubiquitous bird of prey for granted, but let’s give credit where credit is due. Red-tailed hawks have a stronghold in much of the United States as a top aerial predator. Feared by mice and voles, wood rats and snakes, cottontails and jackrabbits, chipmunks and squirrels, and even blackbirds and starlings, red-tailed hawks are incredibly adaptable in their prey base.

Let’s talk field marks for identification. First off, the western red-tailed hawk subspecies (buteo jamaicensis calurus) can occur in three different morphs: light, dark and intermediate. Their range extends from the northern reaches of the Sonoran desert all the way to central British Columbia and, thus, there is much variation in plumage regionally. Locally, we see primarily light morph plumages; however, there can be heavily barred juveniles with a lot of brown when viewed from underneath. Key field marks are a solidly brown head, a dark brown “belly band” dividing the lighter-colored breast and belly, a short dark line (patagium) on the leading edge of the shoulder, and dark tips of the flight feathers, creating an often visible thin dark line on the trailing edge of the wing. When viewed from above or when banking or perching, one can spot the dark brown feathers on top and definitive copper/red tail feathers that give this species its name. There may be quite a bit of white when viewed from underneath. Visit, select red-tailed hawk and scroll down to compare with other similar hawks.

Adults develop long-term pair bonds, only seeking another mate if one is lost. An average of one brood is attempted each year, and a clutch can range in number from approximately one to five eggs. Nests are constructed in the upper canopies of tall trees, cliff ledges or on man-made structures to afford a vantage with sweeping views. 

Recently, there was a heart-warming story in Canada of a bald eagle adopting a stolen red-tailed nestling (initially intended to feed its young). Needless to say, it went viral, as these two species are often viewed as competitors. To view footage from the nest cam, search for “BC eagle adopts hawk.”

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