Red-tailed hawks are a common raptor of North America. Dubbed the “jack of all trades” of birds of prey, there are some 16 subspecies of Red-tailed hawks, which vary widely in appearance and behavior.
In all cases, Red-tailed hawks are robust, flexible predators with a diverse diet. Red-tailed hawks are widespread in North America, but do they migrate?
Red-tailed hawks are partially migratory, and the further north they come from, the more likely they are to migrate. For example, subspecies that breed in Alaska, Alberta, Yukon, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario, nearly always migrate. Most Red-tailed hawks from the northern US states of Washington, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine also migrate.
The further south you get, the less likely it is that Red-tailed hawks migrate. There are many resident non-migratory subspecies distributed across the southern US states and Mexico. Many in the Pacific Northwest also rarely migrate.
In general, Red-tailed hawks are strongly likely to migrate when their breeding grounds are iced or snowed over for most of the year.
Red-tailed hawk migration is complex, and there’s much more to learn - read on to find out!
Red-tailed hawks are classified as partial migrants
Red-tailed hawks are partially migratory. This common raptor occurs throughout the whole of North America, but only the northernmost third of its population migrates reliably.
In much of northern Alaska, Alberta, Yukon, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, north Quebec, Manitoba, and northern Ontario, Red-tailed hawks migrate reliably every year. In the US, Red-tailed hawks from the northern states of Washington, North Dakota, Montana, Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine also often migrate, but it’s far from guaranteed that they’ll migrate every year.
Some 4,500 to 9,000 red-tailed hawks migrate through Ontario each fall, and some 15,000 at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota.
There are still birds in the north USA, Nova Scotia, southern Alaska, and the Pacific Northwest that don’t migrate every year - only on a particularly cold winter.
Red-tailed hawks are less likely to migrate the further south you go. Birds in the southern US, Mexico, Cuba, the Caribbean, and other parts of Central America are residents and don’t usually migrate at all.
Close up of a migrating Red-tailed Hawk
Red-tailed hawk migration is complex. Most northern Red-tailed hawks gather to migrate as early as August, with juveniles setting off first. During migration, Red-tailed hawks form loosely organized flocks, in contrast to their typically solitary nature.
Hawks congregate near “leading lines,” which are topographic features like rivers, coastlines, canyons, valleys, and mountain ranges. They follow the same leading lines every year, making observing their migration reasonably straightforward from well-known hawk watching sites.
Red-tailed hawks follow these south, soaring on thermal currents in early autumn. This makes their journey more efficient, but the hawks still lose a lot of weight over the migration period.
Most Red-tailed hawks glide at a fairly low speed of 40 to 60kmh and don’t tend to rush. The entire migratory journey can take longer than a month.
Red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post
The vast majority of migratory Red-tailed hawks migrate in late September or October, but juveniles at northern latitudes may head off in late August.
Peak migration occurs in mid-October when all migratory birds are on the move. During mid-October, dozens of birds pass through well-known leading lines a day, e.g., Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota.
When it’s time to return to their breeding grounds, Red-tailed hawks rarely leave earlier than late March. Many don’t return to their breeding grounds until June.
The distance Red-tailed hawks migrate is highly variable. Most migratory journeys are under 1,500km, which is still considerable, but a handful of young banded hawks migrated from Idaho to Guatemala, a distance of some 4,200 km (2,600 miles). Birds in Oregon have been recorded heading to Sinaloa, Mexico.
It’s unclear whether the same hawks migrate to the same locations every year. However, when returning to their breeding grounds, many do attempt to reuse their same nest if it’s still available.
Red-tailed Hawk in flight
Most Red-tailed hawks in Alaska, Canada, and the Great Plains region migrate reliably, with some exceptions. For example, birds in Nova Scotia and southern Alaska don’t always migrate or only travel a short distance depending on the weather.
Most Red-tailed hawks in Canada’s Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Yukon, northern Quebec, and North Ontario migrate every year.
In the USA, birds in Washington, Wyoming, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Maine usually migrate. However, not all birds in the Pacific Northwest migrate, depending on the weather. In a milder winter, birds may stay put and not migrate.
Then, the further south you get, the less likely the birds are to migrate. In southern California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, and below, Red-tailed hawks are mostly all-year-round residents.
In Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and the Caribbean, Red-tailed hawks don’t migrate.
A perched Red-tailed Hawk, about to take off
Red-tailed hawks normally migrate less than 1,500km, taking them from Canada and the north USA to Central America and the West Indies.
Some birds end up as far south as Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Others settle practically anywhere in the interior states or on the Pacific or Atlantic coastlines.
Red-tailed hawk migration is highly variable and can take anything from a week or two to over a month. However, most Red-tailed hawks aren’t in a rush when they migrate.
Red-tailed Hawk perched on a branch in a tree, Naples, Florida
There’s little information to suggest whether Red-tailed hawks fly non-stop. They likely complete large portions of their journey in one go, however.
Red-tailed hawks sometimes form loose flocks during migration. Juveniles are most likely to form flocks and tend to congregate at staging areas before leaving together.
This is one of the only times that Red-tailed hawks are sociable - they spend most of their time alone outside of the breeding season.
Red-tailed hawk perched in a tree, searching for prey
Only the northernmost third of Red-tailed hawks migrate reliably. This includes most birds in Canada and northern Alaska. The further south you get, the birds are less likely to migrate.
Red-tailed hawks either stay in their breeding grounds or migrate during winter.
Some only migrate short distances, whereas others fly over 1,500km. While the weather does play a part in Red-tailed hawks’ migratory behaviors, they mainly migrate in pursuit of food.
Red-tailed Hawk standing on the ground in the snow during the winter
Red-tailed hawks either spend the whole year in and around their breeding ground or return from their wintering locations in spring.
In summer, the hawks will likely be in or near their breeding grounds. If the adults raised chicks that year, the adults would be spending summer looking after their chicks, who become independent in late summer or early fall.
In autumn, Red-tailed hawks either remain in their breeding grounds or head south. Those that migrate typically leave in mid-September or October, with migration peaking in mid-October.
Close up portrait of a Red-tailed Hawk
Many Red-tailed hawks return to the same breeding grounds every year, often to the same nest. However, a mated pair may have a few different nests scattered throughout their breeding grounds and select the most viable option.
Red-tailed hawks are diurnal birds of prey and likely migrate by day. There’s no evidence to suggest that they migrate at night.
Do you have a question about this topic that we haven't answered? Submit it below, and one of our experts will answer as soon as they can.
Get the latest BirdFacts delivered straight to your inbox
© 2022 - Bird Fact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.