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Red-tailed hawks range from light auburn to deep brown in color. Their underbelly is lighter than the rest of the body, with a dark band across it. The tail is brownish-red, and it is this trait that gives red-tailed hawks their name. Immature red-tailed hawks look similar to adults, however, juveniles have yellowish-gray eyes that become dark brown as adults.
There are at least 14 subspecies of Buteo jamaicensis, which are separated based on differences in their color and differences in where they breed and spend the winter.
Many red-tailed hawks are year-round occupants, although the birds of the far north migrate south during the fall to escape the harsh winter. Red-tailed hawk pairs remain together for years in the same territory. These birds are very territorial, and defend territories that range in size depending on the amount of food, perches, and nest sites in the territory. The female is usually the more aggressive partner around the nest itself, whereas the male more aggressively defends the territory boundaries. The birds will soar over their territory, mostly on clear days, looking for intruders. Red-tailed hawks are diurnal (active during the day). They have extraordinarily keen vision which allows them to detect prey movements at great distances.
Red-tailed hawks feed on a wide variety of prey, with 80 to 85% of their diet consisting of small rodents. Larger mammals such as hares, reptiles and birds make up the rest of their diet. When a red-tailed hawk is feeding, it ingests the feathers or fur of the small animals. These, along with bones, are not digested but are compacted into pellets and regurgitated.
Red-tailed hawks usually begin breeding when they are three years old. They are monogamous and mate with the same individual for many years. They typically only change mates when their original mate dies. Red-tailed hawk nests are used for several years, and can be up to three feet tall. The male and female both construct the nest in a tall tree. Owls compete with the red-tailed hawks for nest sites. Each species is known to kill the young and destroy the eggs of the other in an attempt at taking a nest site.
The female lays one to five eggs at the beginning of April, with incubation by both parents lasting 28 to 35 days. Males may spend less time incubating than females, but bring food to the female while she is on the nest. During the nestling stage, the female broods the young and the male provides most of the food to the female and the chicks. The chicks begin to leave the nest after 42 to 46 days. The fledgling period lasts up to ten weeks during which the chicks learn to fly and hunt.
Currently, the greatest threats to red-tailed hawk populations are shootings, collisions with automobiles, and human interference with nesting activities. Lead poisoning from eating food items that contain lead shot also kills a number of red-tailed hawks each year. Red-tailed hawks are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
University of Michigan Museum of Zoology Animal Diversity Web