Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis Order: Accipitriformes Family: Accipitridae

Overview

With regard to their availability and suitability as ambassador animals:

  • Red-tails can be acquired from rehab and rescue centers.
  • Parent reared birds can be reliable in both flighted and non-flighted situations.
  • With good desensitization, these birds are good around large crowds of people. They are also calm in large auditoriums, classrooms, and conference areas.
  • Downtown Aquarium, Denver: Easy animal for new handlers to birds of prey.
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Males can prove very difficult after maturity.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: Tends to be calmer.

Natural History Information

Range and Habitat

Red-tailed hawks are found in North America, the West Indies, and Central America. They can live in wooded temperate and mountain zones, plains, savannahs, steeps, and deserts. They nest in trees on on cliffs; in urban areas, they nest on building areas and rooftops.

Photo: Tracy Aviary

Longevity

Red-tailed hawks become sexually mature at about 3 years of age, but tend to find prospective mates as juveniles and keep the same mate for their entire life. In the spring, the female will lay 1 to 3 eggs. Both parents will take turns incubating the eggs for 28 to 32 days. Young fledge at 45 to 46 days old, and they leave the nest at 10 to 12 weeks old.

Lifespan in the wild is 10 to 12 years; in captivity, red-tailed hawks can live 12 to 20 years. (The San Diego Zoo has recently had two live over the age of 30; one (male) was euthanized at 32, the other (female) is still alive and is currently 30 in 2015.)

Ecosystem Role

Red-tailed hawks play an important role in local ecosystems as predators of small mammals, including rodents and rabbits. They also provide habitat for some small bird species, including house sparrows, that live in active red-tailed hawk nests.

Husbandry Information

Housing Requirements

  • Life Cycle Natural History Relevant Information
    • During the breeding season, both male and female individuals may demonstrate natural breeding behaviors that make them more challenging to work with and around. Consider time off from ambassador duties during this time.

Diet Requirements

  • Diet in the Wild
    • 80 to 90% of red-tailed hawks’ diet in the wild consists of rodents, but they will also prey upon moles, rabbits, birds, and snakes.

Veterinary Concerns

  • Individuals with compromised ability, i.e. wild injured, should be constantly monitored for changes in quality of life due to injuries.
  • When working with birds with limited vision, complete blindness in one eye, or missing an eye, these birds seem to be more sensitive (displaying anxious behavior) to lighting changes. Some hawks with vision issues such as a missing eye are still able to do free range flights. They also may be more sensitive to people approaching them from the “bad” side.

Enrichment & Training

Enrichment

  • Environmental Enrichment
    • Changing perches within their habitat.
    • Addition of browse.
  • Behavioral Enrichment
    • The most successful enrichment devices appear to be items that can be footed and shredded, such as paper products, cardboard boxes, lettuce, melons, squash or other produce. These items can be provided alone or stuffed with prey or diet, although raptors should be monitored for ingestion of foreign objects if food is delivered with a novel item. Other successful items include tennis balls, holl-ee rollers, and canvas dog toys, which present opportunities for seizing, grabbing, mock “killing,” and mantling.
  • Schedule
    • Daily enrichment is recommended.
  • Other Enrichment Resources
    • AZA’s Raptor TAG has a comprehensive list of raptor-appropriate enrichment as well as other suggestions on raptor enrichment programs on their website.

Training

  • Behaviors Trained
    • Voluntary step-up to glove
    • Voluntary loading into crate
    • Voluntary scale
    • Voluntary nail trim
    • A-B flights
    • Calm behavior on glove
  • Reinforcers used & schedule of reinforcement
    • This species takes well to positive reinforcement training using its daily diet to reinforce behavior.
    • Using food and/or weight management as part of a good behavioral management program facilitates training by creating a learning environment in which hawks want to participate. Training strategies that involve reducing food offered to the point of compromising the health of the bird are considered unacceptable. Food management and weight management practices that are safe for the owl and trainers, provide for the health and welfare of the hawk, and facilitate training are recommended.
    • Food and or weight management should be done with an understanding of the process and considerations. The decision to use weight management should not be taken lightly nor undertaken at all by staff who do not have a comprehensive understanding of managing weight and diet.

Other

Colony or Breeding Management

Individual Identification

Programmatic Information

Messaging Themes

Threats and Conservation Status

  • Common predators include great horned owls, red foxes, and raccoons. Eggs and fledglings are in more danger of predation than adults. Adults are often kills by humans, whether by car accidents, shootings, or steel traps.
  • In the 1980s, the estimated population of red-tailed hawks was 350,000 based on North American winter populations. The hawk is now bountiful, making a tremendous comeback from the days when it was drastically hunted. Red-tails have nested successfully in both suburban and urban areas and along highways, which has helped it increase its numbers.
  • Prejudices against birds of prey still persist among many who wrongly believe that they harm wildlife or present major threats to domestic animals. Biological studies have documented their ecological importance as major controls on rodent populations. Some birds of prey feed on snakes, insects or other potential pests. No species of raptor poses a significant threat to domestic animals.
  • Instruct guests to never litter, especially when they are in a car. Throwing trash out along the roads not only makes the roads less attractive, but can also attract animals to the sides of the road. Some of these animals might look appetizing to an owl, hawk, or other predator which are then more likely to be hit by passing vehicles.

Interesting Natural History Information

Red-tailed hawks vary in color, from black-brown to red-white. Darker coloration tends to be seen in the western part of their range, while eastern hawks are generally lighter in color. Albinism is common in this species. Juveniles have brown barred tails for the first year, then the russet red tail molts in during the second year. These hawks have broad, rounded wings, a strong hooked beak and sharp, curved talons. Like many other raptors, red-tailed hawks have a body ridge over their eyes that provides shade for the eyes when in direct sunlight.

As with most raptors, the female is nearly 1/3 larger than the male. Average weight is 2 to 4 pounds. Red-tail hawks are 22 inches high and have a wingspan of 4.5 to 5 feet.

The red-tailed hawk is a master of soaring and takes advantage of thermals and updrafts. In cooler weather, when thermals aren’t available, these birds rely on perch hunting. As with all raptors, pellets are regurgitated after eating.

Many birds are year-round occupants of their territories, although the birds in the far north of the range will migrate south during the fall to escape a harsh winter, and birds in the far south will migrate north during the summer.

Their usual vocalization is a hoarse, rasping scream that lasts for 2 to 3 seconds.

Did you know…

  • The eyesight of a hawk is 2-3 times as powerful as a human’s.
  • The powerful cry of a red-tailed hawk is the same cry used in TV commercials depicting bald eagles. Whenever a hawk or eagle appears on screen, no matter what species, the shrill cry on the soundtrack is almost always a red-tailed hawk.
  • The red-tailed hawk has 16 subspecies, each of which is more or less specific to a geographical area, and differs from the others in size, markings, etc.

Handling & Presentation Tips

Use Guidelines

  • This species may be presented on glove, on perch, or in free-flight demonstrations. For tethered presentation, whether that is to the glove or to a perch, attention should be paid to avoid bating. Bating is not something that should be accepted from hawks, if there are instances of such, it is an indication of discomfort, with the handler or the situation, and that discomfort should be addressed, not ignored.

Pubic Contact and Interaction Guidelines

  • Public contact with this species is not advisable.
  • Touching is not advisable.

Transportation Tips

  • Transport box suggestions Raptor Rig and Varikennel.
  • A couple things to keep in mind, crates should not be carried by the handle, but rather using two hands on either side of the crate and supporting it adequately. Swinging transport crates around and or moving them on a bumpy cart may create negative association for the bird, due to an uncomfortable ride and decrease the likelihood that the bird will go in the box on future occasions. If the perch is to low for the bird, their tail feathers may get painted with fecal matter which does not look good on presentation. Varikennel you are able to adjust the height of the perch.

Crating Techniques

  • This species can be trained to voluntarily enter a crate either from the glove or directly from their enclosure. Continuous reinforcement of voluntary crate behaviors as well as dedication to their comfort and safety while in the crate is important to maintaining solid and reliable crate behavior.

Temperature Guidelines

  • Being natural inhabitants of a variety of climates, red-tailed hawks are typically able to be used in a wide variety of temperatures. When transporting and using on programs, attention should be paid to the comfort of the individual and any signs of heat distress responded to accordingly.

Acquisition Information

  • Red-tailed hawks are frequently available through rehabilitation organizations

Resources

Contributors and Citations

Comments from the Rating System

  • Downtown Aquarium, Denver: Easy animal for new handlers to birds of prey.
  • Maryland Zoo in Baltimore: Males can prove very difficult after maturity.
  • Philadelphia Zoo: Tends to be calmer.

Top Photo Credit: Tracy Aviary