The Red-tailed Hawk is the most familiar raptor in North America, evident by every movie soundtrack that plays its screeching call whenever an outdoors scene is shown. They are widespread and common, found in a wide variety of open and semi-open habitats throughout almost all of North America. Red-tails are often seen along roadsides where their hulking figure is hard for even non-birders to miss. They are generalists, both in terms of the habitats they occupy and animals they prey upon. Small rodents are typical prey items, but Red-tails also take birds, reptiles, and just about anything else of like size that makes itself visible. Red-tails hunt efficiently while hovering and kiting from mid to high elevation, as well as from a perch, or even a high speed stoop.
Red-tailed Hawk is smaller than an eagle, but large for a buteo. The Eastern race breeds from the East Coast to the east side of the Rocky Mountains from Texas into parts of Alaska. Western Red-tailed Hawks nest from the Pacific Coast to the western Great Plains, and north to southern Alaska. Harlan's race is scattered from western Alaska, through the Yukon, Northwest Territories to southern Alberta as a breeder. Red-tailed Hawks are generally silent away from the nesting territory, but when calling, make a raspy, loud, downslurred "krreeeeerrr." Juveniles give a high-pitched repeated begging "whee-whee-whee-whee..."
The Alaskan (B. j. alascensis), Fuertes (B. j. fuertesi), and Florida race (B. j. umbrinus) are other proposed races in North America. It is likely Alaskan is simply a form of the Western race. Fuertes overlaps greatly in plumage and range with the Eastern race, and may be a form of Eastern rather than a distinct subspecies. The Florida race occurs within a limited range of southern Florida. It is heavily marked underneath, and often with multiple tail bands similar to many Western birds. Little is known about the extent of its plumage variation, or its exact range. The "Northern" or "Canadian" form (B.j. abieticola) breeds across the boreal forest of Canada. It is considered a form of the Eastern race, which shows heavily marked undersides, a dark throat, and multiple tail bands. Krider's (B. j. kriderii) has been lumped with Eastern in most literature, but is generally distinctive. Krider's breeds in the northern Great Plains from central Alberta to South Dakota. Krider's is strikingly pale overall with a mostly white head and tail, very faint patagial marks and bellybands, and white mottling on the upperwings. Northern and Krider's are likely better representations of subspecies than Alaskan and Fuertes.
Perched, bulky and stocky, wing tips do not reach tail tip.
Stoutly built, with long, broad wings and relatively short tail; juvenile has slightly narrower wings and longer tail.
Races in the West longer-winged than Eastern, but subspecies impossible to discern based on wing shape alone since individuals vary in shape too.
Stable in flight, even in strong winds.
Soar in wide circles on a slight dihedral, and glide on flattish to slightly bowed wings, when they appear particularly stocky.
Gliding, wing tips protrude slightly past the back of wings, but well past in a steep glide.
Wing beats are somewhat shallow and fluid but labored. Smaller Red-tails have quicker wing beats than larger ones.
Two age classes, adult and juvenile. Plumage varies from nearly completely whitish below to completely blackish. Majority are light-morphs (except Harlan's race), showing dark patagials and streaked belly (a.k.a. bellyband).
Adult has red tail with or without multiple black bands (tail can be whitish to blackish in Harlan's), dark eyes, dark trailing edge to the wings, and brown upperside.
Juvenile has brownish tail with narrow dark bands, a poorly defined trailing edge to the wings, pale outer primaries that look translucent, and pale yellow eyes that take a few years to become completely dark.
Eastern race occurs as light morph. Has lightly marked underwings and bellyband, often whitish throats, and a red tail with little or no bands (adults).
Western occurs in light (common) and dark-morph (about 15% of the population) with a multitude of variation in between. Light-morph has rufous-toned underside, heavily marked underwings and belly, broad patagials, darkish throat, and often multiple black tail bands (adult). Some Western and Eastern indistinguishable. Dark-morph adult is brown on the underside or with rufous-brown chest. Juvenile is heavily streaked underneath or solid brown.
Harlan's is most variable of the subspecies, with cline from ghostly white to completely black below. Light-morphs make up 9-12 % of population. Most dark-morph adults have white mottling on chest, some completely dark below. Adult best identified by unique tail having whitish, grayish, brownish, or blackish mottling, some show an near completely reddish tail. A few dark adults have black & white banded tails, but these may represent intergrades with Western or Eastern. Many adults lack banding in the secondaries and primaries. Dark-morph Juvenile ranges from completely streaked below to solidly dark. Juvenile typically has outer primaries banded at the tips, and tail tip shows "spiked" look. Upperwing coverts and primaries are dotted black and white. Light-morph Harlan's are snow white below, superficially like Eastern otherwise. Juvenile light-morph has whitish wing panels, and extensive white mottling along upperwing coverts. Tail of juvenile Harlan's similar to other races but some light-morphs have adult looking tails.
Spring migration takes place mainly from March to May, and from October to December in fall.
Northern populations augment residents across the Lower 48 during fall and winter.
Large movements of Red-tails are noted along the Great Lakes at Hawk Ridge, MN, Lake Erie Metropark, MI, and Hawk Cliff, Ont; and in spring at Derby Hill, NY, Braddock Bay, NY, Whitefish Point, MI, and Brockway Mountain, MI, and at Pembina Valley in SW Manitoba.
Western mountain ranges, such as the east and west sides of the Rocky Mountains, the Goshute Range, NV, the Cascade Range and Marin Headlands along the West Coast see nice Red-tail flights. Much of the West is yet to be explored.
Significant numbers move down the Appalachian ridges in fall at Hawk Mountain and Bake Oven Knob, PA, and along the East Coast.
Harlan's race is scarce at most migration sites, but several thousand can be seen at Gunsight Mountain, AK or at other sites along the Glenn Highway in April.
(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)