College of Veterinary Medicine |

Healthy Animals, Healthy People, Healthy Planet


Charlie is the oldest red-tailed hawk on record

Charlie is a male Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).  He was brought to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital in May of 1981 as a 3 month old fledgling after he was hit by a car.  He suffered a skull fracture and a left shoulder injury which makes it impossible for him to fly.  Charlie has a special place in our hearts as our first and oldest resident. He has made recent headlines as the oldest recorded red-tailed hawk in captivity.
Red-tailed hawks can be found all aver North America, and as far north as central Alaska in the summer and south to Panama in the winter. They are probably the most common hawk species in the US. They are members of the genus Buteo consists of the larger soaring hawks. These birds have broad wings and tails which allow them to soar over open areas and they can often be found circling over fields in search of food. They easily ride rising warm air thermals up into the sky, expending little energy. They occupy almost any open habitat, including desert, grassland, fields, and parks. They may also inhabit tropical rainforest in Mexico and the Caribbean islands. Red-tailed hawks build wide platform nests out of sticks, or may re-use one built in a previous year. They will build the nest on the top of a tall tree, a platform, cliff ledge, or even a building ledge. A mated pair will usually stay together until one of the pair dies. During courtship, the male puts on a display of diving and swooping, and may occasionally clasp talons with the female and spiral through the air.
Other members of the Buteo family found in Washington include the Swainson's Hawk, the Rough-legged Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk. The Swainson’s Hawk visits this area in the summer, when it migrates up from South America. In flight, it is identifiable by white underwing coverts, and dark flight feathers. The Rough-legged Hawk is in this area in the winter, when it migrates south from the Arctic, where they breed. In flight, it is identifiable by a very prominent black wrist patch, and dark primary feather tips. Both of these birds tend to hunt smaller prey than the red-tail, allowing them to coexist peacefully where their ranges overlap. The red-tailed hawk inhabits most of the US year-round and does not migrate unless local conditions become intolerable.
Red Tailed Hawks typically weigh between 2 and 3 pounds. There is no physical difference between males and females other than that the females tend to be about 1/4 to 1/3  larger than males. Adult birds are typically dark brown on their backs and on the tops of their wings. Their undersides are generally light with markings on their wings that can be described as a dash followed by a comma starting near the shoulder and extending out toward the primary feathers. Adults may also show a light colored patch of feathering on their chests, commonly referred to as a "sunburst". Immature Red-tailed Hawks resemble the adults but their tails are brown with stripes, and their chest tends to be lighter tan with brow streaks. They will start to get their red tail with the first molt at one year of age, and will have a fully red tail by the second year. The young also have yellow eyes, which transition to dark brown in adulthood.  
However, there is great color variation among the red-tailed hawks. They can range in color from very dark, almost black, to very light tan, close to white. In general, we categorize them into three groups, the light, dark, and intermediate morphs. The light morph is the least common, making up maybe 5% of the total population. They are almost strictly found in the Northeast US. The most common color variation is the intermediate morph, which is thought to be at least 80% of the total population. The dark morph makes up the remaining 15%, and is relatively more common in the Pacific Northwest. There is disagreement about the number of subspecies of the red-tailed hawk, with numbers ranging from 5 to 16. The best known subspecies is the Harlan’s Hawk. This very dark form of the Red-tailed Hawk has a marbled white, brown, and gray tail instead of a red one. It’s so distinctive that it was once considered a separate species.
Red-tailed Hawks are very well adapted to locate prey from great distances. Their eyesight is at least eight times more powerful than that of humans! In other words, if a hawk were to stand at one end of a football field he would be able to see a grasshopper jump across the end zone on the opposite end with ease! They usually sit in a tree or on a telephone pole and survey the area for food, before diving quickly to pounce on their prey.
Red-tailed Hawks are opportunistic hunters and will eat animals as diverse as rabbits, squirrels, snakes, lizards, insects and birds. However, 85% - 90% of their diet is made up of small mammals – mainly rabbits, squirrels, and mice/rats. They can hunt striking snakes using a special matador move ( Occasionally, red-tailed hawks will kill a snake by flying it up into the air and dropping it on a hard surface.
The red-tailed hawk has the ultimate raptor scream, often heard in movies (even if the raptor shown is an eagle).

Washington State University