Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are one of the most commonly sighted birds of prey in North America. They are often seen perched on telephone poles or fence posts along roadsides. You may have even witnessed one swooping across a field to catch a small animal.
A meal for the red-tailed hawk could include small mammals, birds, or reptiles. Their main diet typically consists of rabbits, rats, voles, and ground squirrels. They also commonly hunt other birds.
A red-tails diet may differ based on the time of year and where they live. If you look at a map of their distribution, you can see this raptor is wide-ranging. They occur across the entirety of the United States and over most of Canada and Mexico. Knowing as much, it makes sense that what they eat can be extremely diverse. To dive more in-depth into the eating habits and behaviors of the red-tailed hawk, read on!
Red-tailed Hawk eating a squirrel on the ground
Red-tailed hawks have a varied diet in the wild. Rabbits, small rodents, and other birds are their most common prey, but reptiles, especially snakes, are often on the menu as well.
Occasionally, these raptors will eat frogs, toads, fish, bats, or insects and may even feed on carrion. Their diets can vary significantly based on season and location.
The red-tailed hawks’ diet can become much more limited in winter. These hawks remain year-round throughout much of the United States, excluding the northern-most regions of the midwest and northeast. Those in the southeast or desert southwest do not have much to worry about. However, not all red-tails get to avoid winter climates.
Within the northern regions of their winter habitat, the red-tailed hawks’ usual food sources are in hibernation or spending the winter underground. Amphibians, reptiles, insects, and fish are also hard to come by. In this case, the hawk mainly hunts birds that remain in the area and the occasional active mammal.
Red-tailed Hawk hunting for prey during the winter
In summer, the red-tailed hawk’s diet is essentially unlimited. They will eat whatever prey they have access to in their territory. If its range consists of forests or vast grasslands, the red-tail is likely to feast on birds, reptiles, insects, and small mammals - such as rabbits, squirrels, voles, and mice.
If the raptor’s territory is near a large body of water, though, their diet may differ slightly. In this case, the bird will eat fish, amphibians, and even crabs or crawdads. These catches would also be intermingled with the more typical dining options - mammals and birds.
Red-tailed hawks are excellent hunters. They possess sharp eyesight that helps them spot small prey moving along the ground. These raptors will typically hunt from a perch, such as a high limb, fence post, or telephone pole.
Once a potential meal is located, the hawk swoops in swiftly to catch its prey with sharp talons. Large, harder-to-carry prey is typically consumed on the ground, while small animals are flown to a perch or nest.
Red-tailed Hawk on a perch looking for prey
How often a red-tailed hawk eats depends on the season and whether or not they are feeding young. In summer, an individual hawk needs two to three meals per day. These meals would ideally be at least the size and weight of a chipmunk.
In winter, a red-tail will almost double this amount. They need at least three to four meals per day to sustain them through cold temperatures. On the other hand, red-tailed hawks will spend nearly all day hunting when raising and providing food for their young.
Red-tailed Hawk eating prey on the ground
Baby red-tailed hawks eat mainly lizards, insects, fish, and small mammals torn into bite-sized pieces by the female. For the first few weeks after hatching, the female stays with the young, while the male brings most of the food.
After about 4-5 weeks, the young are big enough to feed themselves, so the adult red-tails drop food into the nest. In a couple more weeks, the fledglings are ready to leave the nest. However, they are still not strong enough for long flights and will typically remain with their parents for several more weeks.
Red-tailed Hawk feeding chicks in the nest
Red-tailed hawks are carnivores. The majority of their diet consists of small mammals, birds, and reptiles. If you want to feed red-tails, the best way to do so is to provide their natural hunting habitat around your home.
A neighboring pasture or field with nearby trees or a fence would certainly be an attractive spot for this raptor to hunt. Fields are usually teeming with small mammals, snakes, and insects. A nearby water source would make the hunting grounds even more ideal. Water offers access to amphibians and fish, as well as a refreshing drink.
Red-tailed hawks are also attracted to places where other birds congregate, such as a bird feeder. Finches, thrushes, doves, and sparrows are common prey. Keep in mind that if you have outdoor cats or small livestock (i.e. chickens or ducks), attracting a raptor may be impractical. Your pets or poultry could fall prey to the hawk.
Red-tailed Hawk in flight
Red-tailed hawks drink water. To obtain this refreshing liquid, a hawk will typically wade into shallow water and dip its beak in for a drink.
Red-tailed hawks will use bird feeders, but not for the birdseed. They are attracted to the smaller birds hanging out around the feeders. It is not out of character for a red-tail to hunt birds at a backyard feeder, either.
A raptor attacking the smaller birds in your yard is likely something you want to avoid. To discourage this behavior your feeders should have wide roofs or be placed in an area that offers cover - something that will deter the raptor from attacking. If the red-tail continues staking out your feeders, you may have to take them down for a few days.
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