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Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

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).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

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).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 6

Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 6/20 by Partners in Flight.

Life History

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.

Red-tailed Hawk Red-tailed Hawk. Buteo jamaicensis
See caption below Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Red-tailed Hawk in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011–2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

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.

See caption below Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Red-tailed Hawk in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Pie chart showing summary statistics of records by breeding status category Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Red-tailed Hawk in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed325 (6.7%)170 (7.3%)
Probable228 (4.7%)163 (7.0%)
Possible1,105 (22.8%)658 (28.2%)
Observed194 (4.0%)134 (5.7%)
Total1,852 (38.2%)1,125 (48.1%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Red-tailed Hawk observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

See caption below Figure 4.

Predicted breeding distribution (birds detected per 10-minute point count) of the Red-tailed Hawk in Minnesota based on habitat, landscape context, and climate data gathered during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013) using the General Linear Modeling method without an adjustment for detectability.

Breeding Habitat

Red-tailed Hawks are found in open and semi-open habitats, such as grasslands, prairies, wetlands, and agricultural lands adjacent to fragmented forests, woodlots, and contiguous forests (Green 1991; Preston and Beane 2009). Red-tails are often found in the same habitats as the Great Horned Owl, where competition for nest sites can be intense (Figure 4). Johnson (1982) stated that Red-tails were most commonly associated with disturbed or fragmented forest habitats. He also noted the placement of their nests in or along the edge of openings, where they can gain easy access to nest sites. In the contiguous forested areas in the northern half of Minnesota, breeding habitat includes logged and burned-over areas (Green and Niemi 1978).

See caption below Figure 5.

Typical breeding habitat of the Red-tailed Hawk in Minnesota (© Gerald J. Niemi).

Population Abundance

The U.S. and Canadian population of Red-tailed Hawks has been estimated as 2.0 million breeding adults by Partners in Flight (2017). They also estimated a Minnesota breeding population of 34,000 adults. The species was not detected frequently enough on the MNBBA point counts to estimate a breeding population in Minnesota. Using migration raptor count data, Farmer et al. (2008) estimated a global population of 100,000 to 2,000,000 individuals, with 90% of the population in the United States and Canada; this is a more conservative estimate compared with Partners in Flight’s (2017).

The federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) population trend for the Red-tailed Hawk was unreliable for Minnesota because of too few observations; the mean number of detections was less than 1 per route per year in Minnesota. The overall trend for routes censused in the United States averaged about 1 detection per route per year and indicated the population was increasing by 1.73% per year from 1966 to 2015 (Figure 6). In addition, the trends for virtually all states and regions were increasing over this same time period (Sauer et al. 2017). Partners in Flight (2017) estimated based on the BBS that Red-tailed Hawks have increased by 106% from 1970 to 2014.

Migration counts from Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota, indicated an insignificant, stable trend from 1974 to 2012. The more recent trend, however, from 2002 to 2012, showed a significant decline of -6.15% per year (Figure 7).

Bohm (1978) estimated nesting densities in Minnesota by attempting to find all nests in an 18-square-mile area of potentially good nesting habitat. Based on this substantial effort, he estimated a density of 0.21 nests per km2 (0.56/mi2) and compared this with four other similar studies, which ranged from 0.14 nests per km2 (0.37/mi2) in Alberta to 0.77 nests per km2 (2.0/mi2) in California.

See caption below. Figure 6.

Breeding Bird Survey trend for the Red-tailed Hawk in the United States for 1966–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

See caption below. Figure 7.

Fall migration counts of the Red-tailed Hawk at Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota, as calculated by the Raptor Population Index from 1974 to 2012.


With a Continental Concern Score of 6/20, the Red-tailed Hawk is of low conservation concern in North America. Among the reasons for minimal concern for this species at present is its substantial North American population, its wide distribution, and its overall increasing breeding population.

Many of the past threats, such as shooting of Red-tailed Hawks, have subsided, but isolated events still occur. Educational programs and laws have helped, but they need continued attention and enforcement. Lead poisoning; pesticides from agricultural activities; collisions with cars, planes, wires, and wind turbines; and electrocution from power lines have continued to be sources of mortality. Because of its diet of small to medium-sized mammals, Red-tails were not greatly affected by the effects of DDT in the mid-20th century.

Great Horned Owls are known to prey upon Red-tailed Hawk nestlings, and corvids prey on their eggs. Bald Eagles will rob Red-tailed Hawks of food. Despite these threats, the species appears to be healthy at present. It was one of the most frequently killed raptors at wind farms in California. Its susceptibility to wind farm mortality will need to be monitored, as the number of wind farms and turbines is expected to increase in the future.

Because of its wide and extensive southern distribution, the Red-tailed Hawk is not expected to be affected in the near future by climate change.

  • Bohm, Robert T. 1978. “A Study of Nesting Red-tailed Hawks in Central Minnesota.” Loon 50: 129–137.

  • Farmer, Christopher J., Laurie J. Goodrich, Ernesto Ruelas Inzunza, and Jeff P. Smith. 2008. “Conservation Status of North America’s Birds of Prey.” In State of North America’s Birds of Prey. Series in Ornithology, No. 3, edited by Keith L. Bildstein, Jeff P. Smith, Ernesto Ruelas Inzunza, and Richard R. Veit, 303–420. Cambridge, MA: Nuttall Ornithological Club and American Ornithologists’ Union.

  • Green, Janet C. 1991. “A Landscape Classification for Breeding Birds in Minnesota: An Approach to Describing Regional Biodiversity.” Loon 63: 80–91.

  • Green, Janet C., and Gerald J. Niemi. 1978. Birds of the Superior National Forest. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service.

  • Green, Janet C., and Robert B. Janssen. 1975. Minnesota Birds: Where, When and How Many. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Hertzel, Anthony X., and Robert B. Janssen. 1998. County Nesting Records of Minnesota Birds. Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers, no 2. Minneapolis: The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

  • Janssen, Robert B. 1987. Birds in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Johnson, David H. 1982. “Raptors of Minnesota – Nesting Distribution and Population Status.” Loon 54: 73–104.

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2017. “Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).” Minnesota Biological Survey: Breeding Bird Locations.

  • Partners in Flight. 2017. Avian Conservation Assessment Database [Online].

  • Preston, Charles R., and Ronald D. Beane. 2009. “Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).” The Birds of North America, edited by Paul G. Rodewald. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from the Birds of North America: doi: 10.2173/bna.52

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1932. The Birds of Minnesota. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Judith A. Kennedy, Randy Dettmers, Robert P. Ford, Debra Reynolds, John D. Alexander, Carol J. Beardmore, Peter J. Blancher, Roxanne E. Bogart, Gregory S. Butcher, Alaine F. Camfield, Andrew Couturier, Dean W. Demarest, Wendy E. Easton, Jim J. Giocomo, Rebecca Hylton Keller, Anne E. Mini, Arvind O. Panjabi, David N. Pashley, Terrell D. Rich, Janet M. Ruth, Henning Stabins, Jessica Stanton, and Tom Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

  • Sauer, John R., Daniel K. Niven, James E. Hines, David J. Ziolkowski Jr., Keith L. Pardieck, Jane E. Fallon, and William A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 12.23.2015. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.