The Red-tailed Hawk is a large buteo that is common in the United States and Mexico where it is a permanent resident. It expands into Canada during the summer as well. Buteos are robust soaring hawks with broad wings and relatively short tails. They will prey on any small animal but they prefer mammals like rodents and rabbits. They will either hunt from the air as they soar over an open area or perch on a high vantage point near an open area. Red-tailed Hawks are called Highway Hawks for their habit of perching on lampposts and other high structures along highways. They scan the open area for prey and swoop down to snatch a meal. It is risky business though. The hawk is so focused on its target that it can be totally unaware of vehicles with fatal results.
Red-tailed Hawks are the second largest buteo in the US. Females are 20-26 inches (50-65 cm) in length. The males are smaller, typical for raptors, measuring 18-22 inches (45-56 cm). There are several color morphs, especially in the western US. The ones we se in New England are light morphs that have a nearly white underside. Adults have a cinnamon-red tail (pale red from below). Juveniles have a brown banded tail. The key identifiers are a mottled belly band and a dark bar on the underside of the wing at the base of the primary feathers. It has been described as a “comma” or “apostrophe”. The call is a raspy scream that has become the definitive hawk sound and is used in movies, television, etc. as the call of a raptor regardless of the species.
The bulky, robust shape and short tail can be seen in this photo. The red tail shows nicely in the second shot.
Red-tailed Hawks are soaring birds so these are the most common views of them. The belly band and “commas” on the wings are the marks to look for when trying to identify them from below.
Red-tailed Hawks only prey on birds occasionally when an opportunity presents itself. They are not above grabbing nestlings either. Smaller birds are therefore very hostile to the presence of Red-tail. They will harass it by diving at it and creating quite a clamor. The hawk is under no physical threat but eventually it decides to move on to get some peace and quiet. This is one of my favorite photographs of small bird/hawk interaction. The Grackle and Red-tailed Hawk seem to be having a pretty heated argument about the hawk using this particular power line tower as a hunting platform.