Buteo jamaicensis, also colloquially called chickenhawk despite its preference for mammalian prey over domestic fowl, is the most widespread, populous, and versatile member of Falconiformes in the United States. The red-tail's range extends well into Canada and Alaska, Panama and the West Indies, and it succeeds similarly well in high and low altitude biomes, humid and arid biomes, urban zones and forests and open plains. Only the peregrine falcon can boast residence in more discrete types of habitat than the red-tail, and the peregrine certainly does not have the same population numbers or number of subspecies, colour morphs, and taxonomically significant variations. Peregrines also tend to follow a far more restricted diet, preying chiefly on pigeons and small waterfowl. If there is a rodent, rabbit, non-venomous reptile, road-killed raccoon, or complacent pigeon anywhere in the States, within a mile there is a red-tailed hawk who would be all too pleased to call it lunch. Adaptive not only in its climate tolerance and diet, but also in its hunting techniques, red-tails vary from solitary perch and drop hunting to collaborative soar and drop techniques, especially in the Harris Hawk subspecies found most often in the American southwest.
Red-tailed hawks are the prototypical buzzard-hawk, with a wide fan-shaped tail during level flight and broad, rounded wings that display a visible dihedral 'V' and deeply slotted primary feathers in soaring flight. Their wingspans are generally larger than 4 feet but smaller than 5 feet, and their body length ranges from 18 to 26 inches, with the female being approximately 25% larger than the male. Their legs are only feathered above the ankle, with no 'boots' as seen in many other buteo and terrestrial eagle species. They are chiefly brown in colour, with a very clearly rust-red tail that can be identified from above or below. The farther west the subspecies, generally the darker the breast and belly plumage, with Harris and Harlan's Hawk populations showing virtually no white plumage. Most of the continental red-tail population has a creme or white breast and belly, with the head, upper wings, and back being dark brown streaked with golden-brown, occasionally resulting in the much larger females being mistaken at a distant glance for a golden eagle or ferruginous hawk, depending on how pale their belly plumage is. The Krider's Hawk subspecies found in New England and North and South Dakota is nearly pure white in some instances, resulting in mis-identification as the similarly-sized gyrfalcon.
Red-tails are an important part of pest animal population control, especially in agricultural regions, and falconers have made greatly successful efforts to banish the misconception that hawks harm poultry. At the time of this writing, red-tails are slightly overpopulated in much of the American midwest, forcing breeding pairs to survive on smaller hunting territories or face more aggressive competition. This results in many hawks being hit by cars when they scavenge roadside carrion, an activity which also puts them in direct competition with ravens and the occasional turkey vulture or coyote. Red-tails' versatility allows them to encroach on more specialistic hawk and falcon populations, but as long as there are enough rodents and rabbits available, red-tails will ignore smaller birds and insects, allowing kestrels, Cooper's hawks, and peregrine falcons to coexist on the same territories. Red-tails also generally prefer open terrain with scattered trees over dense forest, so accipiters are rarely threatened by red-tail populations in regions with few fields and pastures.
The red-tailed hawk is, along with the American kestrel, the most common 'beginner's bird' for falconers, due to the relative ease of obtaining red-tails, their ability to survive comfortably in nearly any US state, and the ability to keep members of a local population without disturbing the overall survival of the species. Only a passage hawk - an independent, non-juvenile bird less than one year old, not currently breeding or sitting a nest - may be taken from the wild for use in falconry. Red-tails are legally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in Canada, Mexico, and the US.
Red-tails appear frequently in television media as the source of the "eagle's screech" sound effect. Pale Male, a red-tail, became famous in Manhattan for being the first buteo in many years to successfully establish a nest and raise young; he hatched in 1990 and is still alive and raising young at the time of this writing. The mockingbird population in Manhattan has been noted to regularly imitate Pale Male's calls, one of the only noises in the city capable of startling a pigeon. The oldest recorded captive red-tail lived to be 29 years old.
Iron Noder Challenge 2014, 26/30