Has anyone ever read the book series Animorphs? They’re a kids series about a group of teenagers who acquire the ability to change into any animal they’ve touched – so basically the coolest thing ever for an animal lover like me. In the series, if you stay in an animal form for too long (an hour, I think), you are permanently trapped as that animal. This happens early in the series to one of the kids, who gets trapped as a red-tailed hawk. I was trying to think of a bird to blog about today, and for some reason my mind went to Animorphs, so I decided to write about the red-tailed hawk.

Red-tailed hawks are quite common birds, and are widespread in North America. They can be found in most areas of Canada, the US, Mexico and Central America. Red-tails can adapt to pretty much any type of habitat, but prefer relatively open areas with tall places for perching. Red-tailed hawks have actually benefited from human activity in North America: where there were too many trees for the perfect hawk habitat, we’ve cut down trees; where there were no perches, we planted trees. Roadways lined with utility poles are also great places for red-tailed hawks, as there are ample perches and lots of open spaces.

A nice picture of a red-tailed hawk. Juveniles have yellow eyes, which darken to brown as the birds age. Image By Scot Campbell – originally posted to Flickr as Northern Red Tailed Hawk, CC BY-SA 2.0

Red-tailed hawks reach sizes of between 900 and 2000 grams, with wingspans of up to four feet. They vary in colour depending on region, but most are some shade of brown, from auburn to deep brown. There are also some albino red-tailed hawks, which look pretty amazing. Red-tails have, as you might have guessed, red tails. Even some of the albino hawks have red tails. I guess if you are named for one of your distinctive features, you’d better make sure you have it.

Red-tailed hawks are monogamous, and stick with the same mate until one of the pair dies. The male performs a courtship dance to entice the female to mate, and after a pleasant evening together, the pair return home to build a nest together. Nests are usually built in trees or on cliffs, and can be reused from year to year. Sometimes red-tailed hawk nests are stolen by great horned owls, which compete for the same nesting areas as red-tails. Nests can be quite impressive constructions, some reaching three feet in height.

A leucistic red-tailed hawk. Pretty cool, right? Image By Mike’s Birds Uploaded by Magnus Manske, CC BY-SA 2.0

Once the nest is built, the female hawk lays between 1 and 5 eggs, depending on food availability in the area. The female spends most of her time brooding or guarding the chicks, while the male hunts for her and his young. Chicks hatch after about a month, and fledge at between 42 and 45 days of age. They become independent at about 10 weeks of age, but do not reach sexual maturity until three years of age.

Red-tailed hawks are very popular birds for falconry, because they are highly tameable, are resistant to diseases, and live a long time. They are protected in the US, and only juvenile birds can be caught. This suits falconers just fine, as it’s much easier to train a young bird. Despite their popularity in falconry, the red-tailed hawk population is much, much larger than the falconer population, so trapping of juveniles is not a threat to the species. Hopefully falconry won’t get a sudden surge in popularity, and things will stay that way!

Cover image By dfaulder – Red-tailed Hawk_light-morph Harlan’s, CC BY 2.0