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Eyes to the Skies: Red-Tailed Hawks are High Flyers

Have you seen a red-tailed hawk? Probably! They are all around, especially in colder months. You just have to know how to spot them.

A red-tailed hawk soaring under a blue sky.
(Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

Armed with a little knowledge, you’ll get a kick out of watching them soar through the skies.

Red-tailed hawk ID

Red-tailed hawks are Illinois’ largest hawks, and they spread their wings out more than 4 feet. That’s about the height of many 7-year-olds! They are the sturdy boxers of the raptors. They sport big, burly heads. Their wide wings look like bulging biceps.


Words to know

Burly: Large and strong; heavily built.

Biceps: A large muscle in the upper arm. 

Ferocious: Savagely fierce, cruel or violent.

Membrane: A thin sheet of tissue acting as a boundary or lining.


Look out for flashes of rusty brownish-red in their short tails. Their feathers show off shades of white, brown, tan and more to help blend into the environment. They wear a brown “belt” on a lighter belly. When flying overhead, you might see a brown bar on their shoulders and their outstretched feather fingers. When they are perched, keep an eye out for a white “V” on their backs.

Do you hear what I hear?

Listen for a strong, fierce call. Are you hearing a bald eagle? Some ferocious pterodactyl coming back to life from the Jurassic period? Nope, it’s a red-tailed hawk. They screech in flight to claim their space during nesting season. Their calls reach a peak when they defend their nests. Listen here.

Bonus fact: Did you know that eagle cries in movies are usually red-tailed hawks? Eagles sound almost like a squeaky seagull, so they use a red-tailed hawk's call to sound more fierce and imposing. Listen here.

Where are red-tailed hawks?

They live all over the United States and Canada. They even hang out in Mexico and Central America. They like all kinds of environments: scrub deserts, plains, fields, pastures, urban parks, woodlands and tropical rainforests.

Two red-tailed hawks perched on a utility pole.
(Photo courtesy of Joe Viola)

Some red-tailed hawks call one place home all year. Others spend their summers in the far north of Canada and Alaska. They fly south to places like Illinois during the winter. Believe it or not, our winters are warm for them! In the colder seasons we have both year-round residents and migrators here in Will County. Think of the great red-tail hawk numbers! Aren’t we lucky?

How do we see them? They might be soaring across the sky. Check out stop signs, telephone poles, street signs, even tall trees. They love to perch from great heights. From there, they scan for lunch!

Bring on the hunt!

Red-tailed hawks are birds of prey, which means they love to munch on rodents like voles, mice, rabbits and ground squirrels. They even go for snakes and other birds, like pheasants, bobwhites, starlings and blackbirds. In a pinch, something already dead and smelly makes a delicious meal. 

Normally they flap around at speeds of 20 miles per hour to 40 miles per hour. But when they spot something tasty, they dive bomb prey at 120 miles per hour! Then they scoop them up with their sharp talons to dine. Sound like good eating to you?

Their eyesight is eight times better than ours, which allows them to see their food from great heights. They can see mice from 100 feet in the air! To fly as fast as they do, they need goggles to protect their eyes. These goggles are clear extra eyelids called nictitating membranes. 

How cool are red-tailed hawks? Go outside this time of year to look for them. The more you look, the more red-tailed hawks you’ll discover.


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