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Desert Wildlife > Birds:

Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis
Family: Accipitridae Order: Falconiformes Class: Aves


Common, permanent breeding and winter resident and migrant. Breeds throughout California, and winters in all areas without heavy snow cover. Found in almost all habitats, from lowest to highest elevations.


Feeding: Eats small mammals up to hares in size, small birds, reptiles, amphibians, and some carrion (Orians and Kuhlman 1956). In winter, largely dependent upon mice, but also takes medium to fairly large birds on the ground. Catches small birds during migration. Searches by soaring; also perches and pounces, or pounces on prey from low, quartering flights, sometimes hovering on wind or air currents.

Cover: Feeds in grasslands and grass/shrub stages of most habitats. Roosts in trees; sometimes in dense conifer stands.

Reproduction: Usually nests in large trees near openings, in older, mature forests, especially riparian deciduous habitats. Occasionally nests on cliffs or low ledges. Nests 9-21 m (30-70 ft) above ground in trees, higher on cliffs. Flexible in choice of nest site; occasionally uses human-made structures, shrubs, cacti. Sometimes nests in isolated trees, or in small groves in open habitat.

Water: Requirements probably met from food.

Pattern: Highly adaptable; uses grasslands, open brush habitats, and open stands of deciduous and conifer forests. Also frequents croplands, fields, and pastures.


Activity Patterns: Yearlong, diurnal activity. Most active feeding occurs in early morning and late afternoon.

Seasonal Movements/Migration: Migrates downslope in winter; in summer and fall, some individuals move to open areas at higher elevations.

Home Range: Home ranges vary from less than 1 to 10 km˛ (0.3 to 3.8 mi˛), depending on location, topography, habitat, and prey availability.

Territory: In California, Fitch et al. (1946) calculated that territories varied from 0.3 to 0.8 km˛ (0.1 to 0.3 mi˛). They found 0.8 breeding pairs/km˛ (2/mi˛). Territory defended yearlong.

Reproduction: Courtship begins as early as January. Breeds March through July; peaking in May and June. Clutch of 2-5 eggs, usually 2-3, laid in March and April. Incubates 28-32 days. Semialtricial young fledge in 40-45 days.

Niche: Adaptable, common, and widespread. Scrub jays, and other avian and mammalian predators, take undefended eggs and nestlings (Brown and Amadon 1968). May compete for food with ferruginous, Swainson's, and rough-legged hawks. Great horned owls commonly use old nests, and occasionally golden eagles do. Nestlings may be killed by blood-sucking flies (Fitch et al. 1946). Golden eagles may prey on adult.

CDFW California Wildlife Habitat Relationships. Accessed [N/A]

With a wingspan of up to 5 feet this conspicuous and fierce looking bird of prey soars using the slight movement of feather tips to guide its way within thermal uplifts to search for victims. A Red-tail with its superb vision will fold its wings against its body and power dive at speeds of up to 100 miles an hour to catch a variety of lizards, snakes (including rattlesnakes), rodents and every now and again, a bird.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a raptor.
For more information on raptors, click here.

Also see > Birds: Carnivore: Predators: Diurnal

In the courtship display a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soars in wide circles at a great height. The male dives down in a steep drop, then shoots up again at nearly as steep an angle. He repeats this maneuver several times, then approaches the female from above. He extends his legs and touches or grasps her briefly. The pair may grab onto one other and may interlock their talons and spiral toward the ground.

When courting, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soar in wide circles high above the ground. The male will dive, then shoot up again. After repaeting this maneuver several times, he will approach the female from above. He will extend his legs and touch or grasp her briefly. They may grab onto each other, interlocking their talons and spiraling to the ground.

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The Desert Food Chain *
Everything has its niche. Who eats what, and what eats who in the desert?
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