The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is one of North America’s best-known raptors. They can be seen throughout the United States, Canada, and much of Mexico and Central America. For such a well-known bird, few people are likely to know the difference between males and females of the species.
Female red-tailed hawks are much larger than their male counterparts, and this is the best way to tell them apart. The size difference will be most noticeable when a pair is seen together, but with experience, you may be able to make a good guess about whether a single bird is male or female.
There are also some differences in behavior that can help distinguish between the sexes. Read on to learn about these key differences and more.
Differentiation of male and female Red-tailed Hawks by plumage alone isn't really possible
It is not easy to tell the sex of a red-tailed hawk by looks alone. This is because female and male red-tailed hawks have no obvious differences in plumage, coloration, or markings.
Careful observation of behavioral differences, particularly during the breeding season, and comparing the size of pairs perched or flying near each other is the best way to tell the sex of a red-tailed hawk.
The most noticeable physical clue to the sex of a red-tailed hawk is size. Female red-tailed hawks, like so many other birds of prey, are larger than males. The difference can be obvious when the birds are seen side by side.
Behavioral differences are also a great way to differentiate between males and females. These are most obvious during courtship and breeding time. These differences are discussed in-depth a little later in the article, so be sure to read until the end for more details.
Size is one of the best ways to tell the difference between male and females, with females being quite a bit bigger overall
Female red-tailed hawks are powerfully built birds of prey. When seen in flight they have broad wings, with obvious primary feathers that look like fingertips. They are among the largest of the North American Buteo hawks, second only to the ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis).
Plumage color is really variable in the species, but most adult birds have the typical reddish upperside of the tail. Although at least twelve subspecies are currently accepted, most red-tailed hawks can be put into two broad categories. These are simply known as dark and light morphs although birds that are intermediate between these two morphs are also seen.
A typical adult red-tailed hawk of the light morph has a reddish tail, a dark head, and characteristic dark patagial marks on the leading edge of the underside of each wing. They also often have a band of dark markings across the belly.
Dark morph specimens are rufous to chocolate brown below, with white flight feathers. The edges of the flight feathers and wingtips are dark. The markings on the belly and the patagial marks are covered by the overall dark plumage color.
A female Red-tailed Hawk looking after her nestlings
Unfortunately, there are no colorful words for female hawks used in modern times. The female red-tailed hawk is simply known as the hen-bird.
Female red-tailed hawks are significantly larger than males on average. Males measure 45-56cm (18-22 inches) in length while females measure 50-65 cm (20-25 inches). Females are also much heavier than males reaching 1.46kg (3.2 lbs) to the males 1.3kg (2.8 lbs).
While these size differences may be obvious when both members of a pair are visible, identifying a single bird's gender based on size alone is not always reliable. This is because a large male could be larger than a small female.
This size difference is the norm for birds of prey, although scientists don’t really agree on why. One possible reason is to better equip the female for defending herself, her eggs, and her hatchlings while nesting.
A Red-tailed Hawk landing in the forest
When it comes to visually similar bird species, observing differences in behavior is a great way to tell whether an individual is male or female. This is definitely true for the red-tailed hawk, and the most obvious differences can be seen during the breeding season.
Read on to learn some of the key differences to look out for.
Red-tailed hawks engage in spectacular aerial courtship displays. During these displays, they often lock talons or beaks and fall towards the ground. They have even been recorded holding on a little too long and crashing to the earth together!
The male is the more acrobatic individual in these displays and typically approaches the female from above in mid-air to make contact. If successful in his courtship, the female will find a suitable perch and allow mating.
Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree
The call of the red-tailed hawk is such an iconic sound that just about anyone who has ever watched television has probably heard it! Both male and female red-tailed hawks produce these typical hawk-like calls, usually while soaring.
Both male and female red-tailed hawks are responsible for nest construction. The female lays 2 or 3 (sometimes 4) eggs over a period of 3 to 5 days. Both male and female birds are responsible for incubation, which is estimated to last about a month. Females spend more time incubating than males, however, something he often makes up for by bringing her food.
Red-tailed hawks are birds of prey. They feed primarily on small mammals like rodents and rabbits, although small game birds and reptiles like snakes are also an important part of their diets. They are opportunistic hunters that tend to perch high above the ground and scan for prey. They do also occasionally search for prey on the wing by soaring, slowly flying over open fields, or even hovering. Prey is killed using their sharp talons and beaks.
The male brings in the majority of the food, although the female will tear up prey items into bite-sized morsels for the chicks. The female is responsible for brooding the hatchlings, something she will do for up to 5 hours per day until the chicks reach an age of approximately one month.
Red-tailed hawk eating a squirrel on the ground
Both sexes are involved in successfully rearing chicks. For this reason, it's highly unlikely that a female red-tailed hawk could successfully raise the young on her own.
Even with the assistance of males, females may lose weight during parenting. Chicks are also at much greater risk when both parents leave the nest for as little as 30 minutes.
Both male and female red-tailed hawks have the typical rufous-brown tails. This coloration is most visible on the upper side of the tail, but the color shows through well in good lighting.
Juvenile red-tailed hawks look a little different from adults, and individuals of both sexes have more banded tails without the typical reddish coloration.
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