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.
All hawk species in North Carolina are protected by federal and state law. It is illegal to kill, injure, or harass native hawks. It is also illegal to harm or destroy active hawk nests (eggs and/or nestlings present). Possession of live native hawks or any of their parts requires both state and federal permits.
Seeing a hawk on the ground does not necessarily mean it is injured. Hawks that have captured prey or found roadkill too heavy to carry will usually stay on the ground to eat. Unless there is a clear sign of injury or sickness, or a hawk is in immediate danger, there is no need for concern. Only licensed raptor rehabilitators can take in and care for orphaned or injured birds of prey, including owls, hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures. If you feel a hawk needs human help, or you need advice, contact a licensed raptor rehabilitator first.
Hawks sometimes take chickens that are not kept in a secure coop and run with overhead protection from aerial predators. Signs of hawk depredation include missing chickens or carcasses found with the breast feathers carefully plucked and the breast meat eaten. Providing overhead protection is the best way to protect your chickens from aerial predators; bright orange poultry netting, chicken tractors, and covered runs are all effective methods. Learn more about protecting backyard flocks from predators.
Hawks are devoted parents and can be protective of their young. On rare occasion, individual hawks have been known to swoop at people passing too close to the nest or young that are still learning to fly. In these situations, avoiding the immediate area for a few weeks, (or in the case young hawks outside the nest, 24 hours) can prevent issues. If the area must be approached during this time, an open umbrella or bike helmet can be used to provide head protection and avoid any possibility of injury.
Due to having hollow bones, birds are far lighter than they appear; the largest hawks in North Carolina only weigh about 3 pounds. While a hawk is unlikely to fly away with a pet, on very rare occasion they may dive after small dogs or cats. The best way to protect small pets from a variety of outdoor dangers is to keep them on a leash and supervise them closely whenever they are outside.
If you feel a problem situation involving a hawk justifies its physical removal and you have already tried the strategies listed above, please contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services to learn about federal depredation permit options. Federal permits are issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but Wildlife Services can provide guidance on the application process. Be aware, these permits are issued under very limited circumstances. Because hawks can fly, relocation is almost never effective; these permits involve allowing lethal removal of the birds. USDA Wildlife Services' 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)