Red-tails are large, stocky, broad-winged birds that vary greatly in
color. Typical adult birds average 19 to 25 inches (48 to
63.5 cm) in length with wingspans approaching 4.5 feet (1.7 m). There are two color phases, a "normal" or light phase and a
dark phase. Many variations exist between the light and dark phases. The red-tailed hawk exhibits more variations in color
than any other hawk in North America. Even experts sometimes find it difficult to identify the species. In any color phase, the
presence of a red tail, especially a brick-red one, is a good field mark for identification of this species.
Red-tails of the wooded river bottoms, in eastern South Dakota, are
the easiest to identify. These birds are called the eastern
race of the red-tail. An adult eastern race bird typically is brown to dark brown, with lighter brown on the head. The throat
and chest are cream-colored with cinnamon to black streaking on the sides of the breast. A broad band of dark barring and
streaking exists across the belly with barring on the legs. The outstretched wings are whitish, with a brown or
chestnut-brown stripe on the leading edge. A dark crescent-shaped patch is on the underside of the wing. The tail usually is a
beautiful brick-red from which the hawk derives its name.
On South Dakota plains there are two other color forms of red-tails,
the dark plumaged western birds (B.j. calurus) and the
pale Krider's red-tails (B.j. krideri ). Adults and immatures of the western birds tend to have dark brown backs with dark
heads. The chest and belly are rufous and heavily streaked. Wing linings are dark with lighter flight feathers. The tail is
usually a characteristic dark red. Krider's red-tails are much paler than the eastern red-tail. White streaking appears with
much greater consistency upon the head, back, and upper surface of the wing and the band of barring across the belly is
greatly reduced. From a distance, the tail appears white, but may have a tinge of pink at its base. The Krider's form was long
considered a separate species because of its light plumage.
The red-tailed hawk is the most common and widely dispersed hawk in
North America. It is found throughout South Dakota
but is most numerous in the southeastern part of the state. The species can be found in the state all year.
Red-tailed hawks frequent both open and wooded areas. Although these
hawks migrate, some individuals remain in the state
throughout the winter. Those birds that have migrated south return to the state in early March. Nesting occurs in South Dakota
between March and June, with females usually laying 2 eggs. Most young hatch between mid-May and early June, after an
incubation period of 28 days. Nests can be found in trees and on cliffs or canyon walls. Some researchers believe that
red-tailed hawks mate for life and return each year to the same location to nest. Although they will reuse nests, the birds
most often build a new nest each year. Migrants begin leaving the state in early October.
Red-tailed hawks are usually seen as they perch on tree tops, telephone
poles or other exposed perches with good views.
They feed primarily on rodents such as mice and squirrels, but also will eat birds, insects, fish, and larger mammals such as
rabbits. They will pirate prey from other hawks and are known to feed on carrion .
Birds of prey are protected by law. It is illegal to harm them or to
disturb their nests. It is also against the law to have in
your possession any artifacts from birds of prey, such as feathers, talons or preserved specimens. Injured hawks and owls
should be reported to the S.D. Department of Game, Fish and Parks or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Officials will
arrange for birds that can be saved to be cared for at rehabilitation centers such as the Oahe Wildlife Center in Pierre run by
Dr. Virginia Trexler-Myren or the Reptile Gardens Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Rapid City. See the great horned owl
fact sheet for the educational resources of these centers.
Carrion - decaying flesh of a dead animal.
Clark, William S. and Brian Wheeler, 1987. Hawks: Peterson Field Guide
Series, Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston, MA.
SDOU, 1991. The Birds of South Dakota, NSU Press, Aberdeen, SD 57401.
National Geographic Society, 1987. Birds of North America, Mead Paper Co., New York, NY
Pat J. Buscher, Pierre, SD 57501. 1996.
Frank Beebe, taken from The Complete Falconer with permission of Hancock House Publishers, 1431 Harrison Ave.,
Blaine, WA 98230.
Dr. Dan Tallman, Department of Math and Natural Sciences, Northern State University, Aberdeen, SD 57401.
Publication of the Red-tailed Hawk fact sheet was funded by the
S.D. Department of Game, Fish, and Parks, Division of
Wildlife, Pierre, SD.