The red-tailed hawk is a large hawk, brown above and white below, with a brown-streaked band on the belly. Adults have a rust-red tail with a narrow black band near the end. In flight the front edges of the wings are dark, contrasting with the lighter wing linings. In winter, several other color morphs of this species can also be seen in Missouri, ranging from almost entirely dark brown to very pale. Albino birds are also occasionally seen. Immature birds are similar to adults except that the tail is brown with narrow dark bars.
Length: 22 inches (tip of bill to tip of tail); wingspan: 50 inches. Females are larger than males.
Habitat and Conservation
Usually observed along highways, perched on a fence post, telephone pole, tree, or hay bale, from which they watch for prey. Usually nest in open woodlands or in trees in a grassland and cropland area. They frequently nest within city limits, especially along larger highways that have grass-covered median strips for foraging. This species, along with all other native birds, is protected by federal and state laws.
Forages on rabbits, squirrels, snakes, and other small animals either by soaring and diving on prey or by watching from a perch and swooping down on the prey.
Common permanent resident and migrant statewide; most abundant during the winter months.
Pairs may stay together for years on the same territory. Nesting is in mid-March (the earliest nesting time of all Missouri hawks). They may build a new nest of sticks and bark or renovate the same nest used the year before. Nests that have been used for years may be 3 or more feet high. The birds usually bring fresh greenery to the nest — sprigs of leaves or pine needles — until the young birds (2 is the usual number) leave the nest. The fresh greens repel parasites and help hide the nestlings.
Red-tailed hawks are often used in falconry. Many Native American tribes consider these hawks and their feathers as sacred. Many American commuters enjoy seeing these “highway hawks” on their roadside perches.
Primarily preying on rodents and other small mammals, red-tailed hawks play a vital role in controlling their populations. They and other hawk species will occasionally prey upon small birds, but they take far fewer than the millions of birds domestic and feral cats kill each year.
Where to See Species
About 350 species of birds are likely to be seen in Missouri, though nearly 400 have been recorded within our borders. Most people know a bird when they see one — it has feathers, wings, and a bill. Birds are warm-blooded, and most species can fly. Many migrate hundreds or thousands of miles. Birds lay hard-shelled eggs (often in a nest), and the parents care for the young. Many communicate with songs and calls.