Red-tailed hawks are one of the most common raptor species in North America. They are frequently seen soaring over open grasslands or perched on a fence post near the roadside. The raptors are most likely hunting on these occasions. A far more rare occurrence is observing a red-tail nest.
Red-tailed hawks prefer to build their nests in forests where they are unlikely to be disturbed by human activity. Nest sites are located high in trees and are usually difficult to spot from the ground without binoculars.
If you have ever stumbled upon a nest while out for a walk, you probably became aware of it quickly. Females sitting on a nest will circle the air giving their high-pitched shriek when disturbed. Because you may not have the opportunity to observe a red-tail nest up close, we have provided you with this complete guide to red-tailed hawk nesting. Read on to discover more!
The nest of a Red-tailed Hawk with chicks inside
Throughout North America, most Red-tailed hawks nest in mature mixed conifer and deciduous forests, preferably near grass and shrublands or agricultural areas where they like to hunt. On the other hand, red-tailed hawk nest sites vary from dry lowlands to humid rainforests in their tropical Central and South American territories.
Nests are typically located high in the crown of a tree. Tree species appear to be less important than height, diameter, and canopy width. Tall, large-diameter trees with a healthy crown are preferable. Red-tails also choose sites with easy access from above that offer unobstructed views of their surrounding area.
Red-tailed hawks often nest on cliff sides or transmission line towers where trees are limited. Occasionally, the raptors will also use human-made nesting platforms, as long as they meet the preferred height requirements and are easily accessible from above.
Female Red-tailed Hawk in the nest
Red-tailed hawk nests are constructed out of sticks, twigs, and other plant matter. The outer walls usually contain 1-2 cm diameter deciduous and conifer sprigs, while the interior holds softer materials. Strips of bark, plant stalks, corn cob husks, and aspen catkins are the primary items used in the nest interior.
Nest construction typically occurs in the morning and lasts four to seven days. Both males and females participate in nest building or renovating. Little is known about their individual roles, but the female spends more time shaping the interior bowl.
A Red-tailed Hawk gathering nesting materials to build the nest
Red-tailed hawk nests are generally 71-76 cm in diameter on the outside. The interior averages 35-37 cm wide and 10-13 cm deep.
The same nest may be renovated and used again for several years. A nest that has been refurbished multiple times is usually larger than average.
In central North America, red-tailed hawks generally begin nesting in late February to mid-March. Farther north, in regions such as Alberta, nesting may not begin until mid-April or early May. On the other hand, January is the peak laying season for raptors nesting in Puerto Rico.
Red-tailed Hawk in flight
The red-tailed hawk has a long nesting period. Incubation begins when the first egg is laid, typically lasting 28-35 days. After hatching, baby red-tailed hawks will not leave the nest for another 42-46 days. More than two months may pass from the time incubation begins to when the fledglings leave the nest.
Red-tailed hawks build their nests by bringing plant materials to the site and constructing the nest into a large bowl shape. Both males and females contribute to site selection and nest building.
If the pair has nests from previous years, they will often revisit each of these nests. The hawks may even refurbish two or more, before making a final decision on which to use.
Red-tailed Hawk gathering nesting materials
On average, baby red-tailed hawks leave the nest 42-46 days after hatching. The female stays with the chicks, brooding them for the first 30-35 days. During this period, the male brings most of the food for the female and the nestlings. Female red-tails only leave the nest occasionally for a quick hunt.
Red-tailed hawks typically have one brood, consisting of 2-3 eggs per season. A mated pair will nest a second time if the first clutch is unsuccessful.
Three Red-tailed hawk nestlings
Red-tailed hawks typically return to the same nest every year. If the pair have nested for multiple seasons, they may have a few different nests in the same area that they choose between. Reused nests are always cleaned and renovated before the eggs are laid.
The eggs of a red-tailed hawk are typically elliptical. Coloration varies from white to buff, with speckles of reddish to dark brown or purple. The average size of red-tail eggs is 59 cm in length and 47 cm in width.
A red-tailed hawk on the lookout for prey
What month red-tails lay their eggs is primarily determined by region. In most of North America, the raptors' peak laying season is in mid-March. In the northernmost areas of the raptors' territory, laying season may not begin until mid-April. Farther south, peak season may start as early as January.
Red-tailed hawks will use nest boxes, or most accurately, nest platforms. For a red-tail to be attracted to these platforms, they need to be easily accessible from above. A commanding view of the surrounding area is vital also.
A red-tailed hawk perched high up in a tree
Red-tailed hawks typically sleep at night in tall trees. They prefer roosting on branches with dense foliage that offer protection from the elements.
Red-tailed hawks are unlikely to nest in backyards. During nesting season, these raptors are sensitive to human disturbance. However, you are likely to see a red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post, telephone pole, or other structure in or near your backyard. The birds commonly hunt in fields, pastures, and agricultural areas.
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