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SCIENTIFIC NAME: Buteo jamaicensis

STATUS: Breeder. Common in winter, fairly common in spring and fall, and uncommon in summer in Gulf Coast region. In other regions, common in winter and fairly common in spring, summer, and fall. Lowest Conservation Concern. 

DESCRIPTION:  Classified as a raptor (birds known for hooked bills and sharp, strong talons) the red-tailed is the largest hawk in Alabama, averaging between two and four pounds.  Females of this species are larger than the males.  The wingspan of an adult bird can be four to four and one-half feet.  Adults are identified by their rusty or rufous colored tail feathers.  Immature birds lack this colored tail until the second year when rusty feathers molt into place.  Fourteen subspecies are recognized in North America, Buteo jamaicensis borealis occurs in Alabama.

DISTRIBUTION:  Breeds in eastern North America except in Florida, west to the Great Plains.  Northern birds migrate to find adequate food supplies while birds farther south are resident.  In Alabama, the red-tailed hawk resides year round, adjusting only if a shortage of food is encountered.

HABITAT:  Very adaptable; will utilize nearly all habitat types as long as food sources are plentiful.

FEEDING HABITS:  Opportunists utilizing whatever food sources are available including mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, and invertebrates.  Small rodents make up the majority of their diet.

LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY:  Thought to establish permanent pair bonds; mating and nest building begin in early spring.  Large and bulky nests, constructed of sticks, are normally found in hardwood trees.  Both the males and females assist with nest construction.  The pair may build a new nest or repair a nest used previously. Two dull white to bluish eggs marked with reddish blotches are deposited from March to May.  Incubation duties are almost entirely maintained by the female and take around 30 days.  During this period, the male hunts and provides food for the female.  Offspring are dependent on parents for one and one-half months.  Maturity does not occur until a bird is three years old.


Johnsgard, P., 1990.  Hawks, Eagles, & Falcons of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington and London. 403pp.

Author: Richard Tharp, Wildlife Biologist, Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.