Have you spotted a large raptor lately, either perched in a tree or up soaring in the sky? Chances are the bird was a Red-tailed Hawk, by far the most common bird of prey in all of North America. They are found throughout the United States and Canada, and into Mexico and Central America. Many birds, including the birds here in Southeast Arizona, are year round residents. However, Red-tailed Hawks in the far northern part of their range move south for the winter—we see an uptick in hawk abundance right here in Arizona starting in October. Their habitats include riparian woodlands, mountains, deserts, agricultural fields, urban areas, and everything in between (as long as there are elevated perching sites for hunting), making this species the most commonly observed hawk in the US.
Red-tailed Hawks are highly variable in appearance, but generally they have brownish upperparts and paler underparts, and usually a dark belly band and patagial bars on the leading edges of the inner wings are visible. The red tail for which this species is named, along with a dark sub-terminal tail band, are visible from above. However, Red-taileds can also be jet black, rufous, white, and come in light and dark morphs! Rest assured though, even if you spot one of these other confusing races, the odds are still in your favor to call out “Red-tailed!”
You’ve probably heard the raspy Red-tailed Hawk call in the wild, and more certainly, you’ve heard one in a movie or TV show. It is commonly used to represent the sound of nature, and any other hawk (or eagle!) no matter the location.