Dakota – Red-tailed Hawk

Dakota’s story

Dakota is a female red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) that came to the WSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital as a juvenile from Yakima, Washington, on November 18, 2004. She sustained injuries after being shot by a pellet gun and then was hit by a car when she fell to the ground. All things considered, she is fairly well off. She had damage to her right wing, but the only remnant of that is a slight droop to the wing. She can fly almost perfectly. However, she is blind in her right eye, making judging distance nearly impossible for her. She sometimes has trouble aiming for perches and pieces of food. Because of this, she would be unable to accurately catch prey in the wild and would likely starve.

Facts about the red-tailed hawk


Red-tailed hawks are one of the most widely distributed hawks in North America. These common hawks range from central Alaska and northern Canada in the summer to Panama and the West Indies in the winter. Red-tails prefer to inhabit open fields and deserts containing some forested areas. They also adapt well to urban and tropical rainforest environments. Red-tailed hawks build wide platform nests out of sticks or may reuse 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. These nests are sometimes stolen by secondary nesters, such as great horned owls.

Dakota perched on a handler's arm.

Hunting & diet:

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 are also able to distinguish between venomous and nonvenomous snakes. They hunt venomous snakes by using a special “matador” move. They fling their wings out in front of the snake to distract it. The snake will strike at the feathers, which have no blood flow and will not harm the hawk (much like if a snake struck a human’s hair). The hawk will then grab the snake and crush its head with its powerful feet. Occasionally, if it is not venomous, red-tailed hawks will kill a snake by flying it up into the air and letting gravity do the work for them by dropping the snake on a hard surface.

Close-up image of Dakota's foot and talons.

Males & females:

There are no physical characteristics that distinguish males from females, although females on average tend to be slightly larger than males.


They mate for life, which means 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.

Physical features:

Red-tailed hawks typically weigh between 1.5 and 3 pounds. 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. We sometimes refer to this as the “Oreo” pattern because in flight the pattern looks like a dark outer ring with a lighter filling. Adults may also show a light colored patch of feathering on their chests, commonly referred to as a “sunburst.” They also have a white spot on the backs of their heads, but the spot can be difficult to see in the wild. 

There is great color variation among the red-tailed hawks. In general, we categorize them into three groups: light, dark, and intermediate morphs. The light morph is the least common, making up about 5-10% of the total population. Light morphs have lighter-than-average coloring. Some are so light they are almost white. They are almost strictly found in the Northeastern US. The most common color variation is the intermediate morph, which is thought to be at least 80-85% of the total population. The intermediate morph is primarily a mottled brown and tan with the distinctive “sunburst” pattern on their chest and an obvious red tail. The dark morph makes up the remaining 10-15%, and is relatively more common in the Pacific Northwest. This morph is also referred to as a melanistic red-tail. The dark morph is generally a dark chocolate brown and can be difficult to identify by their diminished “sunburst” pattern.

Immature red-tailed hawks resemble the adults, but their tails are brown with stripes, their chest tends to be a light tan shade with brown streaks, and they sport yellow eyes rather than the dark brown of the adults. 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.

Eyesight: 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.

Identifying characteristics:

The red-tailed hawk has the ultimate raptor scream, often heard in movies (even if the raptor shown is an eagle).

Red-tailed hawks are members of the genus Buteo consisting of the larger soaring hawks. Buteos are known for their broad wings and relatively short tails, which distinguishes them from other diurnal raptors: accipiters, falcons, and eagles. They can often be found circling over fields in search of food. This circling is eased by warm air thermals rising up into the sky. This method of travel is efficient for the birds and expends little energy. 

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. Ferruginous hawks are rare summer visitors to Eastern Washington. They are the largest Buteo in North America and can be distinguished by the dark reddish “V” made by their legs in flight. The Red-tailed hawk does not migrate unless local conditions become intolerable. However, they will do a range shift where they move to another territory for a time.

There are around 14 subspecies of red-tailed hawks. The two most recognizable subspecies are the Harlan’s hawk and the Krider’s hawk. Harlan’s hawks have dark plumage overall and a mottled gray and black tail. Krider’s tend to have white underparts and head, large patches of white on upper, and lacks a red tail.  

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
National Geographic
The Peregrine Fund
Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd edition)