Photo: Lee Karney/USFWS
Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
Classification: Nongame Species
Abundance: Found statewide
Red-tailed Hawk (with tail displayed) (Photo by Greg Hume)
Red-tailed Hawk (Photo by Mark Bohn/USFWS)
Red-tailed Hawk with chicks on nest (Photo by Thomas O'Neil)
The red-tailed hawk is the most often-seen large hawk in North Carolina. It perches on telephone poles along highways and soars over open fields in search of food. The red-tailed hawk makes a striking appearance with its large, stocky body and mottled brown feathers. The adult’s breast appears white with a brown belly band that looks like a wide belt. Its rust-colored tail, broad and short, distinguishes it from the smaller red-shouldered hawk. Red-tailed hawks grow to about 18 to 25 inches in length and have powerful legs and wings that span 48 inches as they soar. Its hunting adaptations are formidable: a short, hooked bill that tears flesh; long, sharp claws that grasp prey and sometime s kill it. The female’s plumage is identical to the male’s, but she grows about 3 inches larger.
Red-tailed hawks like a mix of open country and deciduous forests, but they adapt to urban areas. Generally, they prefer the woods for nesting and roosting, and the fields for feeding. As day breaks, the hawks move to the woodland edge to perch and to soar. Red-tailed hawks frequently can be seen perching on telephone poles, tall trees or snags along roadsides. They sit high mainly to rest, but constantly keep watch for the slightest movement down below. To feed, they primarily soar up to 200 to 300 feet above open areas, scanning for favorite foods such as rodents, rabbits, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Often described as beautiful in flight, redtailed hawks have been observed soaring for hours without coming to a rest. When they spot their prey, these keen hawks snap their wings by their bodies and rocket down at a 45-degree angle with their feet out in front and their talons, or claws, ready to grasp the prey. They rarely miss. Red-tailed hawks take one to two good meals a day this way. By evening, they return to the woods to roost, almost trading places with the great horned owl that feeds in the same open areas by night.
Alert and fast, the red-tailed hawk evades many predators, but bobcats, great-horned owls and humans sometimes kill this bird of prey. The woods provide nesting grounds for these large birds, as well. Secretive and solitary nesters, red-tailed hawks prefer to nest in thick, upland hardwood forests. They may use an old raptor nest as a base, or build a nest they may use and improve on year after year. Red-tails build a bulky nest of sticks 30 to 60 feet above the ground in the crotch of a tree, and they line it with moss, roots, grasses and other fine plant material. Red-tailed hawks usually remain alone or in family groups, but they will soar together in flocks. Migrating hawks move by day, catching warm thermals high in the air.
Learn more by reading the Red-Tailed Hawk species profile. (PDF)
The red-tailed hawk is a nongame species with no open hunting season. Under federal and state law, it is illegal for anyone to injure, harass, kill or possess a bird of prey or any parts of a bird of prey. This includes harming or removing a nest. If you find an injured hawk, contact a licensed wildlife rehabiliator.
The red-tailed hawk is a federally protected bird. Under federal and state law, it is illegal for anyone to injure, harass, kill or possess a bird of prey or any parts of a bird of prey. This includes harming or removing a nest. If you find an injured hawk, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Please contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services for any issues with this species. The toll free number is (866) 4USDA-WS (866-487-3297)
Bounty hunters and sport hunters once shot great numbers of red-tailed hawks, contributing to a general decline in hawk populations in the early 1900s. The decline continued when pesticides like DDT caused eggshell thinning. Since the mid-1960s, red-tailed hawk populations have risen significantly in the United States and in North Carolina. Today it is a common bird and one of the most familiar hawks in the state.
Red-Tailed Hawk species profile (PDF)
Sandy Mush Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Green River Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Pond Mountain Game Land Birding Checklist (PDF)
Wildlife Diversity Program Quarterly Reports
Protected Wildlife Species of North Carolina Listings (PDF)