Identifying the Red Tail

Are they red-tailed hawks?

Are they red-tailed hawks?

The  red feathers are starting to fan out

The red feathers are starting to fan out

Notice the distinctive red tail feathers

Notice the distinctive red tail feathers

I have trouble identifying hawks because they all seem to look so similar. Looking for clues to a raptor’s identity — by zeroing in on features such as size, shape, coloring, stripes on the feathers or behavior — doesn’t always help me figure out what I’ve seen. Factor in distance or poor lighting and it’s even more difficult; if the hawk is a fledgling or a juvenile, “fuh-gedda-boud-dit!” The young ones are almost impossible for me to distinguish. Despite my difficulty ID’ing hawks, there is one type that is not too difficult to determine from the rear.

The red-tailed hawk is aptly named for its distinctively colored reddish tail feathers. Like many other hawks, the body and wings are brown and the breast is lightly speckled, but the color of the tail really stands out. It’s especially noticeable when the feathers are fanned in flight.

About a month ago, I saw two hawks perched high in a tree. I was uncertain about their identity, although I assumed they were red-tailed hawks because they are so common in my area. Once the hawks began to fly though, the red-brown tail was clearly evident. When you are out and about, look for the red tail to identify the red-tailed hawk.

10 responses to “Identifying the Red Tail

  1. Nice photos! We see a lot of Red Tails sitting on the power lines. Perhaps looking for mice attracted to litter. Sometimes that doesn’t work in their favor if they swoop done in front of a car.

  2. Great photos! I learned a lot about identifying hawks by a variety of clues, including general shape and how they fly, from Pete Dunn’s Hawks in flight. Plumage is often hard to tell if lighting and distance aren’t cooperative, but that first photo of yours nails the Red Tailed identification immediately without ever seeing the tails. Reds don’t always boast such distinct belly bands these two so. No other hawk has a feature so obvious. Compare it to others with white bellies or streaked breasts, but the only one that has a white throat, a low white belly and that broadly streaked belly band between them is the red tailed.
    I’m envious of these photos.

  3. I saw two huge birds like this in a tall tree during a snowstorm and so wished I could have stopped to take a photo. Been seeing them a lot this winter.

  4. I agree, it can be tough. And Red-tailed Hawks have different color morphs which can make it confusing as well. Great post!

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