|Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are found in Colorado all year in high numbers across the state. They perch on street lamps and telephone poles even in suburban and urban environments. One of the interesting things with red-tails is the fact that there are many different subspecies that migrate to different areas of the continent, interbreed with other subspecies, and end up with some very unique and interesting appearances beyond the typical "color morphs" that are found with the other buteos. Telling these subspecies apart could easily be the topic of a lengthy book, so I will keep this page simple and just stick with the most common red-tails, sprinkling in some unique individuals that I have photographed. One subspecies, the Harlan's red-tail (buteo jamaicensis harlani), will have its own page just because I am fascinated by them.|
Red-tails are named after their reddish tail when viewed from the upperside. This is characteristic but not diagnostic (other hawks may have red tails and some Red-tailed Hawks do not have red tails). Here are views of typical red-tails in flight:
During most of their first year, before they have molted their tail feathers for the first time, young Red-tailed Hawks do not have red tails. They are generally brown or grey with darker, equal width bands. The bird below is in the middle of a molt where the old tail is being replaced by the new tail (the center two feathers), showing a "before and after" shot of her tail. Her head feathers also appear to be in mid-molt, giving this big girl a rather strange look (smallish head with big eyes).
A more sure identification marker of a Red-tailed Hawk is the dark line on the leading edge of the wing underside between the shoulder and the wrist. This is called the patagial mark (the patagium is the flexible skin or membrane that stretches between the body and the wrist as the elbow pushes the wing out or brings it in). The next two photos show this mark as well as another key ID characteristic, the belly band. Across the body, a band of darker markings can be seen under the chest. The belly band pattern, darkness and thickness are highly variable, but it is a good characteristic for distant identification of a perched bird.
Here's a good picture of a typical perched belly band:
The darker morphs are, as always, a bit tougher to identify, but the patagial marks, tail pattern/coloration, and to a lesser extent the belly band, remain as helpful tools.
There are also some unique individuals out there with "leucism," similar to albinism in that pigments are not distributed normally, leading to partially white to nearly all white birds. This condition seems to be present in red-tails more than the other hawks, and many of these white birds live normal lives (past 10 years of age and mate with standard-appearing partners).