A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Art Lander’s Outdoors: The Red-tailed Hawk, Kentucky’s most conspicuous raptor

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), a year-round resident, is perhaps the most conspicuous raptor in Kentucky.

This large hawk, often observed paired up the late fall and winter, is one of six hawk species that nest in-state, including the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, and Northern Harrier.

Beginning in November, local resident populations of Red-tailed Hawks swell with migrants, coming in from the Great Lakes states and Midwest.

Because young birds are easily trained, the Red-Tail Hawk is a favorite with falconers.

Size and Coloration

The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), a year-round resident, is perhaps the most conspicuous raptor in Kentucky (Photo provided)

This large hawk has broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail. Adults are brown above and pale below, with a streaked belly and, on the wing underside, a dark bar between shoulder and wrist. The tail is usually pale below and cinnamon-red above, though in young birds it’s brown and banded.

Plumage can be variable west of the Mississippi River, ranging from blackish to rufous-brown to nearly white.

The largest birds may weigh up to 3.5 pounds, are 26 inches tall and have a wingspan approaching five feet.

Females on average are about 25 percent heavier than males.

Range and Distribution

The Red-tailed Hawk is abundant and widely distributed.

Its geographic range includes most of the continent, from Alaska and Canada, south to Mexico into Central America, east from Baja California, to Florida and Maine.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a year-round resident in all but the northernmost reaches of the Lower 48 states, and some birds winter as far south as the Atlantic coast of Mexico.

According to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, the Red-tailed Hawk was not as numerous in the 1950s in Kentucky as it is today, and was found primarily in the rough, unsettled hills of the Cumberland Plateau.

Today, its distribution is statewide, including the highly cultivated and pastured Bluegrass Region.

Since the 1980s researchers have found that the number of Red-tailed Hawks has increased throughout most of its geographic range.

When looking for prey Red-tailed Hawks may soar in wide circles high over a field. Like all members of the genus Buteo, they dive from a perch when attacking prey. It’s a slow, controlled dive, with legs outstretched, pinning prey in their sharp talons. (Photo provided)

Habitat

In Kentucky, the Red-tailed Hawk is found in a variety of terrains, but most frequently in farm country, a mix of fields and woodlands, mostly open country.

Look for these hawks perched on telephones poles, fence posts, or trees standing alone or tree lines along the edges of fields.

When looking for prey Red-tailed Hawks may soar in wide circles high over a field.

In high winds they face into the wind and hover without flapping, eyes fixed on the ground.

They are frequently seen in wooded suburbs and parks in large metropolitan areas throughout northern and central Kentucky, where squirrels, rabbits, birds and chipmunks are in high numbers, providing an easy food source.

Food Habits

Like all members of the genus Buteo, they dive from a perch when attacking prey. It’s a slow, controlled dive, with legs outstretched, pinning prey in their sharp talons.

Their diet varies by season, but mostly includes small mammals such as mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits. They also eat birds and snakes and may feed on fresh carrion.

Typically, small prey is carried back to its perch, while large prey is often partly eaten on ground.

Courtship and Nesting

According to The Kentucky Breeding Bird Atlas, the Red-tailed Hawk was not as numerous in the 1950s in Kentucky as it is today, and was found primarily in the rough, unsettled hills of the Cumberland Plateau. Today, its distribution is statewide, including the highly cultivated and pastured Bluegrass Region.(Photo provided)

In courtship, male and female soar in high circles, calling to one another with their distinctive shrill cry — a hoarse, raspy scream, described as kree-eee-ar.

The male may fly high and then dive repeatedly in spectacular maneuvers, to impress his prospective mate.

In Kentucky, as soon as the harsh winter weather moderates in late February and early March, Red-tailed Hawks that were paired up over the late fall and winter, begin to breed.

Nest building is often underway by mid-March and eggs are being incubated by early April.

In most areas, they nest in large trees, usually more than 50 feet above the ground. The nest is built by both sexes and is a bulky bowl of sticks, lined with finer materials, often with fresh, evergreen sprigs.

In eastern Kentucky Red-tailed Hawks sometimes nest on the protected ledges of rocky cliff lines.

Eggs are whitish, blotched with brown. Clutch size is typically two to three eggs. Incubation is by both parents and lasts for 28 to 35 days.

The female remains with the young most of the time during first few weeks after hatching, while the male hunts for food. She tears the food he brings to the nest into small pieces to feed to the young, then later the food is dropped in nest, and the young feed on it themselves.

By mid-June, the young begin to test their wings and eventually leave the nest, but they stay with their parents for some time after fledging.

The Red-tailed Hawk has expanded its distribution and abundance across Kentucky in recent decades.

This time of year especially, a drive down most any roadway that traverses woods and fields in farm country, is likely to provide a glimpse of this spectacular bird of prey.

1Art Lander Jr.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

 

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