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North Carolina Wildlife Species Information

Red-tailed Hawk -  Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis

Identification Tips:

  • Length: 18 inches Wingspan: 48 inches
  • Sexes similar
  • Short, dark, hooked beak
  • Large, broad-winged, broad-tailed hawk
  • Immatures have notably narrower wings and tail, and appear slimmer
  • Dark patagial mark on underwing, present on all ages and races, is unique
  • Blocky translucent area in outer primaries
  • Flies with a dihedral
  • Extraordinary geographic variation

Light morph adult:

  • Brown head, nape, back, and upperwings
  • White chin, throat, breast, and belly
  • Dark belly band formed by vertical streaks in band across belly
  • White underwings have dark carpal bar on leading edge, dark outer primary tips and a dark trailing edge and are otherwise pale with dark bars on the flight feathers on all but the outermost primaries
  • Tail appears brick red above and pink below
  • Breast and back pattern vary with geography, with some birds being intermediate between light and dark morphs

Light morph immature:

  • Like adult, but with less distinct markings below, and brown tail with numerous narrow, dark bands

Dark morph adult:

  • Wholly dark chocolate underparts, upperparts and underwing coverts with no apparent patagial mark
  • Pale underside to primaries and secondaries like light morph birds being pale with dark tips and dark bars on the flight feathers
  • Tail appears brick red above and pink below (like light morph adult)
  • Breast and back pattern vary with geography, with some birds being intermediate between light and dark morphs

Dark morph immature:

  • Dark brown head, neck, breast, back, upperwing and underwing coverts are variably mottled with white and buff
  • Dark brown tail with numerous darker bars
  • Paler flight feathers with dark barring on all but the outermost primaries

Harlan's Hawk adult:

  • Recently split
  • Entirely blackish body plumage
  • White necklace of streaks across breast
  • Tail variably pale gray, gray, or reddish, with dark terminal band

Harlan's Hawk immature:

  • Entirely blackish body plumage
  • Flight feathers extensively barred below (including outermost primaries)
  • Tail pale with numerous dark bars

Krider's Hawk adult:

  • Paler head and back than Eastern adult
  • Tail varies from pink to white
  • Belly band and patagial mark faint or absent

Krider's Hawk immature:

  • like Krider's adult, but with whitish tail with several dark bands and whitish primaries without barring

Fuerte's Hawk:

  • Like Eastern adult but lacks belly band and is darker on the back and upperwing coverts

Similar species:

Red tail, patagial mark and belly band diagnostic when present. Due to its extreme variability though, the Red-tailed Hawk can be very difficult to identify. Most other light morph buteos are separable by shape and plumage, with Ferruginous Hawk being the most similar. The adult Ferruginous can be identified by its lack of a belly band, rufous leggings, paler flight feathers, lack of a patagial mark, and extensive reddish coloration on the upperwing coverts. The immature Ferruginous is similar to the immature Red-tailed but lacks the dark patagial mark. Dark morph Swainson's has dark flight feathers and white undertail coverts. Rough-legged has unmarked flight feathers and a white comma in the outermost underwing coverts. Other dark morph buteos (Broad-winged, Short-tailed) are smaller with different flight profiles. Immature White-tailed Hawk has a white diamond on its central breast.

Length and wingspan from: Robbins, C.S., Bruun, B., Zim, H.S., (1966). Birds of North America. New York: Western Publishing Company, Inc.

Above information used courtesy of United States Geological Survey.  Photo by Rich Reid - National Geographic.

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