Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis Scientific name definitions

C. R. Preston and R. D. Beane
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated May 20, 2009


Habitat in Breeding Range

Typically breeds in open to semiopen habitats -- coniferous and deciduous woodlands, grasslands, shrublands, deserts, agricultural and urban landscapes -- with elevated nest/perch sites such as tall trees, cacti, cliff faces, or human-made structures (Bent 1937b, Beebe 1974aBeebe 1974a, Palmer 1988f, Snyder and Snyder 1991, Stout et al. 1996). Also occupies closed-canopy, mountainous rainforest and cloud forest in Puerto Rico (Snyder et al. 1987c, Santana et al. 1986d, Santana and Temple 1988, Snyder and Snyder 1991, Boal et al. 2003). Otherwise avoids densely timbered areas, as well as areas with large expanses of terrain without trees or other elevated perch sites.

In e. North America, prefers woodlot (isolated forest stands) habitats with relatively open canopy usually near foraging areas of grassland, oldfield, agricultural, or other open habitats; typically avoids dense canopy forests and single trees for nesting (Bent 1937b, Craighead et al. 1969, Orians and Kuhlman 1956, Gates 1972, Palmer 1988f). In much of New York State and New Jersey, nests significantly closer to deciduous forest openings than would be expected by chance (Speiser and Bosakowski 1988), though nest sites in w. Maryland were no closer than random sites to forest edge (Titus and Mosher 1981).

Uses large reclaimed surface mines with scattered trees, as well as mixed woodland/agricultural habitats in nw. Pennsylvania, but encountered less frequently than expected at smaller reclaimed surface mines with trees in n.-central Pennsylvania (Yahner and Rohrbaugh 1998). In nw. Ohio, 45% of nests located at edges of dense, deciduous forest, and another 45% in small open stands of trees, with only 10% in dense forest (Cornman 1973). Grazed, open canopy woodlots attract highest density of nesters in w. Ohio (Misztal 1974), with productivity highest in open woodlots near large expanses of fallow pasture (Howell et al. 1978).

In central Minnesota, 74% of nests located on or near woodlot edges, frequently close to human activity near pastures and farmsteads (Bohm 1978). Only 10% of nests in dense woods, with 26% and 64% located at forest edges and in small woodlots, respectively, in Wisconsin (Orians and Kuhlman 1956). Similarly, 87% of nests in open woodlots and isolated trees, whereas only 13% in closed canopy woodlots in e.-central Wisconsin (Gates 1972). Males in Wisconsin forage in upland hardwoods, pastures, grasslands, and lowland pastures, while females are more restricted to upland and lowland hardwoods probably tied more closely to nest sites (Petersen 1979a).

In New York City, NY, high-rise building used for nesting, with adjacent parkland (Central Park) used for foraging (Winn 1999). Also nests in suburban subdivisions in central New York (Minor et al. 1993). Has also nested successfully in urban environments in Michigan and Wisconsin (Valentine 1978, Hull 1980, Stout et al. 1998, Stout et al. 2006a). Nesting densities decline from rural to suburban to urban habitats in se. Wisconsin, but presence of natural cover is important across rural-urban habitats (Stout et al. 1998). In urban-suburban Milwaukee, WI, nesting habitat includes woodlands and large areas of grassland and other herbaceous cover, while areas of heaviest urbanization are avoided (Stout et al. 2006a).

In Iowa nests mainly in open-canopy woodlots on slopes typically in association with open farmland, roads, and buildings; sympatric Red-shouldered Hawk (B. lineatus) is more closely associated with large patches of bottomland hardwoods farther from buildings and roads (Bednarz and Dinsmore 1982). In Kentucky, forages mostly in open fields with relatively short, sparse vegetation (Leyhe and Ritchison 2004). In Florida, wooded uplands, cypress (Taxodium distichum) tree islands, and Australian Pine (Casurina equisetifolia) shelter-belts, and residential areas used for nesting and foraging (Toland 1990, Toland 2003).

In w. North America, found in a wide variety of habitats providing a mixture of open country and elevated nest/perch sites. Commonly encountered in broken spruce and other conifer forests below timberline in Alaska and n. British Columbia (Swarth 1926, Palmer 1988f). Occupies tree-grassland mosaic in s. Saskatchewan (Houston and Bechard 1983). Also nests in patchy woodlands, canyon-lands, and riparian corridors in Oregon and California from sea level to above 2700 m, especially near agricultural lands (Bent 1937b, Palmer 1988f, Wiley 1975a). Reproductive success higher in habitat with regularly dispersed, elevated perch sites in n.-central Oregon (Janes 1984b). Occupies areas with cliffs or mixed conifer/deciduous woodland on moderately steep slopes near expansive openings of sagebrush (Artemisia spp.)-steppe or remnant agricultural areas in Wyoming (MacLaren et al. 1988, Smith et al. 2003b). In Wyoming's Bighorn Basin - a vast area dominated by sagebrush and sandstone outcrops - nesting habitat typically includes patches of cottonwoods (Populus spp.) in riparian corridors or rural residential areas with human-nurtured trees (CRP).

Breeders occupy a broad range of habitats in Colorado, especially pinyon-juniper (Pinus edulis-Juniperus spp.) woodland, lowland riparian woodland, upland deciduous and coniferous forest, ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) woodland, and shortgrass prairie (Preston 1998). Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) woodlands with nearby open country support nesting Red-tails in w. Colorado (McGovern and McNurney 1986), while in extreme se. Colorado and sw. Kansas, nesting habitat is limited to narrow strips of riparian cottonwood trees adjacent to active and remnant agricultural lands, leaving out vast stretches of more open grassland and agricultural habitats occupied by Swainson's (B. swainsoni) and Ferruginous hawks (B. regalis) (CRP). Forages near active Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) colonies and heavily-traveled roadways with mowed margins in Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, near Denver, CO (Preston et al. 1996).

Nests in areas with steep, north-facing slopes, broken canopies, and dense understories, and forages in non-forested areas within 105-645 m of nests on the Kaibab Plateau, AZ (La Sorte et al. 2004). Forages mostly in ungrazed and lightly grazed habitats and avoids severely overgrazed habitats in rangelands of se. Arizona (Rice and Smith 1988). In the Sonoran Desert of s. Arizona, uses structurally simpler, more arid habitat including Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea), avoiding sites with dense vegetation used extensively by Harris' Hawks (Parabuteo unicinctus) (Mader 1978).

Associated with dense, closed-canopy forest in Puerto Rico's Luquillo Experimental Forest (Santana et al. 1986d, Snyder et al. 1987c, Santana and Temple 1988, Snyder and Snyder 1991, Boal et al. 2003), in stark contrast to typical habitat associations reported elsewhere throughout range. May use tops of unbroken forest canopy as foraging “pasture” (Snyder et al. 1987c, Santana and Temple 1988). Also nests in urban areas in Puerto Rico (Santana et al. 1986d). In continental Central America, breeds predominately at high elevations (Blake 1953, Slud 1964, Monroe 1968, Land 1970, Ridgely 1976); ranges widely in elevations and habitats in the West Indies (Danforth 1931, Wetmore and Swales 1931, Bond 1979a).

Habitat in Nonbreeding Range

Habitat in Migration

Concentrated in e. North America along north-south trending coastlines and mountain ranges; generally avoids crossing large bodies of water (Brinker and Erdman 1985, Kerlinger et al. 1985a). Forages in semiopen areas containing elevated perches, especially single or scattered trees (Roberts 1932c, Applegate et al. 2004, CRP). Also uses north-south mountain ridges and coastlines in w. North America, but movements may be more widely dispersed than in e. North America owing to large breaks in western ridge systems (Bent 1937b, Hoffman 1985, Hoffman et al. 2002). May gather locally to forage at stopover sites with abundant prey (e.g., Farallon Islands, CA; Bryant 1888, Bent 1937b). Frequently forages in semi-open foothill shrublands along spring migration ridgelines in central Colorado (CRP).

Habitat in Overwintering Range

From s. Canada to Central America, occupies grassland, shrub-steppe, agricultural, suburban, urban, and other open and semi-open habitats with scattered trees and other elevated perch sites, especially with abundant and vulnerable prey (Bent 1937b, Craighead et al. 1969, Preston 1990, Preston et al. 1996, Garner and Bednarz 2000, Leyhe and Ritchison 2004, Reed et al. 2004). Typically avoids large expanses of treeless terrain and densely forested regions. Occurs in especially high densities in agricultural habitats in mid-western and southeastern U.S. (Root 1988, Lish and Burge 1995, Garner 1997).

Across e. U.S., occupies a wide variety of open habitats in association with scattered woodlots. In Wisconsin, prefers upland pastures and grasslands and upland hardwood stands (Petersen 1979a). Males also frequent marsh/shrub-carr and lowland pastures, whereas females more likely than males to use lowland hardwoods (Petersen 1979a). In central Iowa prefers open woods and stream corridors (Weller 1964b), and in w.-central Illinois commonly forages in idle grasslands (Froberg 1972). In n. Illinois, perches in small stands of trees overlooking grassland and corn stubble, while avoiding plowed fields (Schnell 1968). In Kentucky, avoids areas with large patches of bare ground, but prefers areas with short, sparse ground cover over areas with taller and more dense cover (Leyhe and Ritchison 2004). In mixed agricultural habitats in e. Arkansas, avoids soybean and wheat fields, while favoring woodlots and using rice fields in proportion to availability (Garner and Bednarz 2000). In central Arkansas, favors old-field and corn stubble patches and avoids habitats including large expanses of bare ground or tall corn (Preston 1990).

Occurs in a great diversity of mixed grassland, shrubland, wetland, woodland, cultivated lands, and semidesert habitats in w. North America (Bent 1937b, Palmer 1988f). In Oregon, occupies irrigated croplands and one-year-old hybrid poplar (Populus spp.) plantations (Moser and Hilpp 2003). In Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near Denver, CO, frequents woodlots near active Black-tailed Prairie Dog colonies. Near Boulder, CO, occupies wooded, riparian corridor surrounded by mixed tallgrass and shortgrass prairie, with no difference in abundance between sites with and without recreational trails (Fletcher et al. 1999).

Red-tailed Hawk Figure 6. Annual cycle of breeding, migration, and molt in the Red-tailed hawk
Figure 6. Annual cycle of breeding, migration, and molt in the Red-tailed hawk

Annual cycle of breeding, migration, and molt in the Red-tailed hawk in the eastern U.S. Thick lines equal peak activity, thin lines off peak.

Red-tailed Hawk Red-tailed Hawk nest in saguaro cactus, central Arizona, April 1996.
Red-tailed Hawk nest in saguaro cactus, central Arizona, April 1996.

; photographer Gerrit Vyn

Red-tailed Hawk Immature Red-tailed Hawks at nest, Portage, Porter Co., IN., May
Immature Red-tailed Hawks at nest, Portage, Porter Co., IN., May

The following link is to this contributor's Flickr stream or website. http://www.flickr.com/photos/56869605@N00/, May 22, 2005; photographer Terry Swanson

Red-tailed Hawk Adult male Red-tailed Hawk leaving nest after delivering food; City College of NY City, April.
Adult male Red-tailed Hawk leaving nest after delivering food; City College of NY City, April.

Urban nesting is rare but increasing phenomenon in the RT Hawk, showing the ability of this species to adapt to human landscapes and disturbance. The following link is to this contributor's Flickr stream or website. http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbs10025/, Apr 27, 2008; photographer Robert Schmunk

Recommended Citation

Preston, C. R. and R. D. Beane (2020). Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.rethaw.01