- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A regular breeding resident, migrant, and regular winter resident in the southern half of the state. The Red-tailed Hawk was common during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
The Red-tailed Hawk is widely distributed in open country throughout the United States and to the tree line in northern Canada and Alaska. Red-tails have substantial variation in their plumage. Currently there are 12 recognized subspecies in two groups, of which the “typical” Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis borealis) is the primary subspecies found in Minnesota. Highest densities are found in widely scattered patches in Kansas, North Dakota, Alberta, and California (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 6/20 by Partners in Flight.
Permanent resident to short-distance migrants. Migration patterns of Minnesota birds are complex and still largely unknown.
A carnivore that primarily uses a sit-and-wait strategy to feed on small to medium-sized mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles.
Placed in trees on edges or within mixed deciduous-coniferous forests adjacent to openings of shrubland, grassland, or agricultural areas.
The Red-tailed Hawk is one of Minnesota’s most distinctive and common raptor species, especially in open country, along roadways, in woodlands, and in openings in heavily forested areas. It is easy to identify when its distinctive red tail is observed. It is a polymorphic species with 4 subspecies in Minnesota and potentially 16 described in its North American population (Preston and Beane 2009). The 4 subspecies include the dark-phased Harlan’s Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis harlani), the dark, often rufous-colored Western Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. calurus), and the light-phased Krider’s Hawk (B.j. kriderii) (Green and Janssen 1975). As previously noted, the most commonly observed subspecies in Minnesota is the Eastern Red-tailed Hawk (B. j. borealis).
Roberts (1932) noted it was a “summer resident, breeding throughout the state.” He lamented the widespread disappearance of this species as a summer resident in Minnesota in his 1932 treatise: “During an automobile trip entirely across the state from Minneapolis to Pipestone County and back, August 31 to September 4, 1923, not a single Red-tail was seen. Only two were noted on a similar trip, June 18 to July 7, 1924 from Minneapolis west to the Dakota line, south along the wooded shores of Lakes Traverse and Big Stone to Lac qui Parle County and return” (Roberts 1932).
Roberts (1932) included confirmed nests with eggs or young from the following counties: Becker, Dakota, Goodhue, Hennepin, Isanti, Jackson, Kittson, Lac qui Parle, Lake, Polk, Sherburne, Traverse, and Wright. He also noted inferred nesting in Faribault, Nicollet, Stearns, Steele, and Wabasha Counties.
More than 40 years later, Green and Janssen (1975) labeled the Red-tail simply as a summer “resident throughout the state” and considered it the third most abundant raptor after the “Marsh Hawk” (now the Northern Harrier) and American Kestrel in most areas of the state, except in the forested areas, where the Broad-winged Hawk was most numerous. Several years later, Janssen (1987) similarly described the species as a summer “resident throughout the state, except in the coniferous regions of the northeast and north-central regions.” He reported confirmed nesting in 38 counties since 1970, with a similar distribution as presented by Roberts (1932). Later, Hertzel and Janssen (1998) expanded that to include an additional 13 counties since 1970, for a total of 51 counties.
The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) recorded 506 breeding season locations for the Red-tailed Hawk (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2017). The locations were distributed throughout the state where the MBS has completed inventories but were less numerous in the heavily forested regions of the northeast and east-central regions of Minnesota.
The participants in the MNBBA reported breeding evidence in every county of the state and a total of 2,620 records (Figure 2). In terms of records, the Red-tailed Hawk was the most abundant raptor during the MNBBA. Red-tails were observed in 38.2% (1,852/4,848) of all surveyed blocks and 48.1% (1,125/2,337) of the priority blocks (Figure 3; Table 1). The most frequent category recorded was possible nesting because although the species is easily observed in an area, finding the actual nest can be challenging. Most confirmed or probable nesting records were identified in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, where volunteer efforts and coverage were extensive. Nesting was confirmed in 72 counties.
The probability map for the Red-tailed Hawk predicts a wide and generally uniform population distribution throughout much of western, southern, central, and northwestern regions of Minnesota (Figure 4). Within this broad area, the species is found in open and semi-open country where it is found foraging, roosting, and nesting among scattered forest patches. Scattered breeding areas are also located in in northeastern and northern Minnesota where suitable openings exist such as in agricultural regions, farmsteads, and recently logged areas.
The population of Red-tailed Hawks is considered to be secure in Minnesota and in North America. Preston and Beane (2009) suggested that populations have expanded through much of North America during the mid- to late 20th century in response to widespread establishment of open, wooded parklands that have replaced grasslands and dense forests. The species adapts to urban, exurban, and agricultural development as long as adequate food supplies (primarily small to medium-sized mammals), perch sites, and trees or other structures for nesting are available.
Roberts (1932) bemoaned the loss of this species from his early years in Minnesota, when he observed it “in the vicinity of Minneapolis where now it is, in the summer, an object of interest.” In recent years Red-tailed Hawks have been increasingly observed in the Twin Cities area, and the MNBBA provides solid evidence of their nesting throughout the region; this is a testament to its resilience and its adaptability to human-altered landscapes.
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.