If you haven’t seen a red-tailed hawk, you’ve probably heard one in a car commercial or introduction to a wildlife program or as a transition to a mountain scene in a movie. Its call, kee-errrrrr, has become the prototypical wild bird call. Once you’re able to identify the sound from websites like BirdWeb, Audubon, or All About Birds from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, you’ll notice something amiss in these media spots. Why does the eagle or vulture in the commercial sound like a red-tailed hawk?
Other than its distinctive voice, its short and wide red tail — which is really a rusty orange-brown — is an easy identifier (except for the juvenile, which has a light brown tail). The underside of the tail is also red but much paler. While the red-tailed hawk’s body is primarily brown, its whitish breast is streaked with large black spots, often described as a dark belly band, and the underside of the wings are whitish and rounded with black bars, with a wingspan of approximately 4 feet. Of the Accipitridae hawk family, red-tails show the most variation in light and dark plumage, and also the highest incidence of partial albinism. Looking from below, one can see dark, thick bars on the front edge of the wing called patagial, or markings. Patagium is a membranous fold of skin between the wing and body. Typical of most large soaring birds, the long, narrow “fingers” prevent the bird from stalling when flying at lower speeds.
Red-tailed hawks are fairly large birds, 18 to 25 inches tall, and are built broad across the chest. They’re often seen soaring over open fields and above forests when not perched on fence posts or utility poles. I’ve seen the strange phenomenon where they soar without flapping, hovering in high winds while focused on the ground in search of prey. A lucky observer might witness the large bird plummet into a dive with their legs outstretched, which is called a stoop.
Accipitrids are known for their strong, hooked bills used for tearing apart prey, and strong toes and sharp talons for killing rodents and rabbits that they bring to their platform nests set high in trees and rock ledges, where the females also lay two to four spotted eggs. The fledglings leave after six weeks.
The red-tailed hawk’s Latin name, Buteo jamaicensis, stems from it being first studied in Jamaica, but the bird can be found almost everywhere in North America. The Audubon site states that it is the “most common and widespread American member of the genus Buteo, which also includes the red-shouldered, Swainson’s, and gray hawks, among others.” In the Sierra, Buteo jamaicensis is the most frequently observed hawk.
The next time you hear the renowned kee-errrrrr sound, look up, and if the light is just right you’ll see a glimmer of burnt orange on the tail as the red-tailed hawk gracefully turns toward the mountains and then soars out of sight.
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