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The Naturalist's Corner: Buteo jamaicensis

Soaring red-tail. Don Hendershot photo Soaring red-tail. Don Hendershot photo

A red-tail by any other name and there are several “named” red-tails. But I dare say for we sons and daughters of the South, simply the word hawk conjures up mental images of Buteo jamaicensis either scanning its surroundings from atop a telephone pole, a high snag or a fence post. And most can remember hearing a piercing scream and turning upward to see this avian god soaring overhead on broad wings with flaming tail trailing.

The red-tail is by no means relegated to the South. This large raptor breeds from interior Alaska and northern Canada, from coast to coast across the lower 48 and south to Panama and the West Indies. And it utilizes habitats from urban (remember NYC’s male pale) to backyards; to interior coniferous and/or deciduous forests; forest edges; and the edge of prairies and deserts. But it is the largest and most common of the three buteos regularly inhabiting the Southeast.

The red-tail averages about 19” in length, weighs on average 2.4 lbs. with an average wingspan of 49”. The other two breeding buteos of the Southeast are the red-shouldered hawk — average length 17”, and wingspan 40” average weight 1.4 lbs and the broad-winged hawk with an average length of 15”, weight 14 ozs. and wingspan 34”.

There are 13 subspecies of Buteo jamaicensis and numerous color morphs among those species making the red-tail one of the most variable raptors in the world. The subspecies common to our area is the eastern red-tail, B.j. borealis. The eastern red-tail breeds from Maine and eastern Canada to central Canada southward all the way to northern Florida and from the East Coast westward to eastern Texas and the Great Plains.

Adult eastern red-tails are dark above and pale below. In adults the iconic red tail is pale from below and rusty-cinnamon from above. The throat and breast are pale and there is a dark bellyband. Also visible from below is a dark patagial bar on the leading edge of the wing. Immatures do not show a red tail — their tail is brownish with several dark bands but they do exhibit the patagial bar and bellyband.

Red-tails are facultative migrants, meaning northern birds move as far south in the winter as needed to find food. Our red-tail population tends to expand a bit during the winter months.

This winged carnivore is highly opportunistic. Nearly 500 different prey species have been recorded in the red-tail’s diet. Small mammals, especially rodents make up the greatest portion but they also consume reptiles, birds, amphibians and invertebrates. Red-tails have been known to hunt in pairs taking up stations on either side of a tree trunk to catch squirrels, trying to elude capture by circling the trunk. The average lifespan of wild red-tails is around six to seven years but the oldest known wild red-tail was at least 30 years and 8 months old. It was found in Michigan in 2011 — the same state where it was initially banded in 1981.

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. His book, A Year From the Naturalist’s Corner, Vol. 1, is available at regional bookstores or by contacting Don at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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