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What Is a Red-Tailed Hawk?

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  • Written By: Alyssa Simon
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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A red-tailed hawk is a carnivorous bird that belongs to a group called raptors, meaning birds of prey. Its scientific name is Buteo jamaicensis. Buteo is from the Latin word for broad, or rounded, and refers to the red-tailed hawk's wings. Jamaicensis refers to Jamaica, since the bird was first studied by scientists in the West Indies, but its range also extends throughout North America to Alaska and as far south as Panama.

These adaptable birds can be found in deserts or forests. The female is usually larger than the male, and both adults have dark brown heads and backs with a lighter underbelly and bright red tail feathers. A young red-tailed hawk can be identified by its brown tail, which turns to red in its second year. The average red-tailed hawk in the wild can live to be 21-years-old.

The birds have strong, hooked beaks and long, sharp talons or claws on their feet that they use to capture their prey and tear it apart if it is too big to be swallowed whole. A red-tailed hawk's eyesight is thought to be eight times greater than a person's, which enables it to spot from great heights the small rodents that make up the majority of its diet. In some parts of the US, they are called chicken hawks, because they have been known to prey on domestic chickens. They can also hunt rabbits, snakes and lizards.

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Mating season for the red-tailed hawk is March through May, and great aerial mating displays can be seen then when both the male and female birds fly up high and then swoop down around each other repeatedly. Red-tailed hawks are thought to mate for life, and when they are ready to breed, both genders help to make large and shallow nests from small twigs. The nests are also thought to be used repeatedly and are added to year by year to repair weather or wind damage.

Female red-tailed hawks will generally lay two eggs a season. The incubation period is about a month, and during this time, the male red-tailed hawk hunts for food to bring back to the nest while the female protects the eggs until they hatch. Baby red-tailed hawks stay in the nest for a little over six weeks and by the fifth week will flap their wings in preparation to fly and leave the nest for the first time.

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