The elegant Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most widespread of all North American raptors and inhabits much of Canada and the USA. Red-tailed hawks are polymorphic, and individuals fall into three main morphs; light, dark and intermediate.
There are 13 subspecies, too, so identifying juvenile Red-tailed hawks is a tricky procedure, to say the least - this guide to juvenile hawks will help!
One of the main differences between juveniles and adults is that younger birds tend to have pale brownish tails with evenly spaced bars. Light morph juveniles may have darker backs and speckly undersides, but plumage in other morphs is challenging to tell apart.
Another reliable way to identify a juvenile Red-tailed hawk juvenile is by its iris, which is yellowish for around 1.5 years, then turning red-brown during adulthood. This is the case across all subspecies and morphs.
Since Red-tailed hawks can range from nearly all-white to dark brown or even black, differentiating juveniles often relies on comparing their size, shape and behaviour vs adults.
Read on to learn more about juvenile Red-tailed hawks and further tips for identification!
A young, first winter Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree
Juvenile Red-tailed hawks are generally described as scruffier, or duller than adults. This is true to an extent, but since Red-tailed hawk plumage is highly variable across the three main morphs and 13 subspecies, there is no one-size-fits-all method to identify a juvenile.
Firstly, juvenile Red-tailed hawks are probably defined as post-first-moult birds. Red-tailed hawks moult and regrow their feathers most years, but the juveniles experience a major moult that sees them transition from their soft fledgling down to plumage that resembles an adult bird.
Young birds are still much smaller than adults at this stage, which makes them easier to identify.
After the young hawk starts to develop adult feathers, identification becomes a greater challenge. White or light-coloured juvenile Red-tailed hawks may have speckly undersides, darker backs and pale heads. Paler juveniles have heavier brown wing speckles, which can turn almost completely white.
Dark morph juveniles look very similar to adults and are predominantly dark brown or cinnamon, and it’s harder to tell them apart from adults based on plumage alone.
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk (buteo jamaicensis) soaring in flight
The go-to method to identify a juvenile Red-tailed hawk is by looking closely at the tail.
Red-tailed hawks are somewhat defined by their red tails - which stands to reason - though this is not always consistent as some have grey tails with barely any red!
However, juveniles tend to have striped or banded tails with darker brown uppers rather than the rusty red or grey tails of adult birds.
The exception is the dark morph, whose tails are not really red at all and tend to be greyish, both as an adult and as a juvenile.
Even so, the appearance of a dark and light striped or banded tail is a strong indicator of a juvenile Red-tailed hawk, regardless of the morph or subspecies.
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk perched in a tree, looking out for prey
Juvenile Red-tailed hawks older than six months or so are not much smaller than adults. Fully grown male Red-tailed hawks measure around 45 to 60 cm (18 to 24 in) long, whereas females are slightly larger at 48 to 65 cm (19 to 26 in).
Juvenile hawks approach adult size and weight after around two months, but will not attain full sexual maturity for one and a half years. While juvenile Red-tailed hawks are of similar size to adults, their feathers are generally shorter, especially on the wing.
Consequently, their silhouette often appears thinner, which makes a juvenile relatively easy to spot if there are adults nearby for comparison.
Until the age of one to one a half years, Red-tailed hawks generally have striped tails. In adulthood, these bands are replaced by solid colours. Rather than solid red-brown tails, juveniles often have darker horizontal barred tails or narrow red barring.
This is one of the simplest ways to identify juvenile Red-tailed hawks in flight. An overtly banded tail is a strong indication that the hawk is still a juvenile.
However, this is not always a consistent way to identify juveniles as the tails of darker morphs change little from juvenile to adult. Also, in some subspecies, such as Harlan's Red-tailed hawk, the tail can be white or black, rather than red.
An immature red-tailed hawk on a post
Red-tailed hawks develop their hunting skills over months and tend to target voles and other small ground mammals.
Adults develop more flexible hunting skills and prey upon around 50 species. Ground squirrels, rabbits and voles continue to make up much of their diet.
Replacement of juvenile red-tailed hawks feathers usually happens over the course of several months.
Young Red-tailed hawks moult twice before adulthood, and adults tend to moult every year. Natal down is replaced within around 2 to 3 months after hatching, at which point the hawks tend to develop their juvenile plumage. Juveniles won’t transition fully to adults for around 1.5 years.
A well camouflaged juvenile red-tailed hawk
Like many raptors, Red-tailed hawks have a relatively slow and patient lifecycle. They fledge after around 44 to 48 days but remain close to their parents for a further 10 to 12 weeks.
During that time, the parents will still help feed the juveniles. After around 15 to 16 weeks, the parents will stop responding to the juveniles, who will then be forced to leave and roam the region until they reach sexual maturity. In the interim, young Red-tailed hawks often try to linger and watch their parents hunt.
A young red-tailed hawk
Adult Red-tailed hawks have a fuller silhouette. This is because their primary feathers are of greater length than juveniles, which gives them a broader profile in flight. Conversely, juveniles are thinner with narrower tails.
Juvenile Red-tailed hawks are not so confident in flight as adults. Whereas adults spend much of their time soaring or perching on trees, juveniles fly at lower altitudes by flapping their wings rather than soaring. Overall, juvenile Red-tailed hawks do not possess the same aerial competence as adults and may come across as clumsy in flight.
Juvenile Red-tailed hawks target primarily voles, which are found to be the mainstay of their diet. Prey are frequently seen squirming and trying to evade the grasp of juveniles’ talons, probably because they’re not as efficient as killing their prey as adults. Red-tailed hawks diversify their diets to encompass trickier, faster-moving prey as they reach maturity.
Juvenile Red-tailed hawks also tend to hunt from lower altitudes and hover rather than soar. Soaring high above the ground is a tricky art that only adult hawks can master!
Close up of a juvenile red-tailed hawk
Starting in autumn, many Red-tailed hawks migrate, at least partially. Juveniles tend to migrate between one to two months earlier than adults.
Juvenile first year Red-tailed hawks tend to have pale yellowish eyes, whereas adults have dark brown eyes.
Some adults have extremely dark brown eyes, which make them easy to identify. This is the same across all morphs and subspecies (as well as many other birds from the Buteo genus). If the bird’s iris looks yellow, then this strongly suggests that it hasn’t yet reached adulthood. However, changes in eye colour are gradual and are generally hard to spot without a good view of the bird in decent lighting.
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