Red-tailed hawk high in a tree

Red-tailed Hawks

If you see a large bird soaring above the Willow Spring Open Space, chances are good that it is a Red-tailed Hawk. As it turns, you may be able to notice the rust colored tail that the name describes.

Red-tailed Hawks have a wide variety of colors to their plumages (morphs), but in the west we most commonly see the light morph, which has a pale breast, dark head and a band of dark streaks across the belly. Also, dark shoulders can sometimes be seen from below.

red tailed hawks soaring in blue sky
Red-tailed hawks soaring in blue sky

Red-tailed Hawks are year-round residents of the Willow Spring Open Space and the neighborhoods around it. They are carnivorous birds of prey, eating small mammals, snakes and birds.

They are in the Falconiformes Order, which includes diurnal raptors (active in the daytime) such as vultures, hawks, falcons and eagles. Most birds in this order have a heavy, sharp, hooked bill and strong curved talons to take their prey.

How to Recognize a Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks are about 19-22″ long with a wingspan of 49-50″. They are stocky and broad with rounded wings and a short tail.

They have the strong hooked beak of raptors along with sharp talons. Their call is a harsh descending “keeeer”.

They are in the Accipitridae family (accipiters), which includes 240 species of birds of prey with hooked beaks and sharp talons, such as eagles, hawks and kites.

There are quite a few species of hawks and eagles that are at home in Colorado, so it may be necessary to have a good field guide (book or person) to tell the difference between them all. In the summer of 2020, I spotted a nesting pair of Swainson’s Hawks in the trees to the west of the Open Space!

pair of red-tailed hawks
Pair of Red-tailed Hawks

Through the Seasons – mating, nesting

While some Red-tailed Hawks make the short migration to the southern U.S. and Mexico, many also stay here year-round.

Red-tailed Hawks begin nesting in May-June. They build a nest high in a large tree, and may reuse the same nest for several years, adding to it each year and lining it with moss, evergreen twigs and grapevine bark.

The female lays about 2-3 eggs which are about 2 1/4″ long. The female and male take turns incubating the eggs for 28-35 days, and they leave the nest when they are 6-7 weeks old.

Where to find in Willow Spring Open Space

They are often seen soaring around the Open Space, sometimes riding the wind currents up the Englewood Dam, or perched high in trees.

red-tailed hawk eating in a tree
Red-tailed Hawk eating in a tree

Did You Know?

The call of the Red-tailed Hawk is frequently used in movies and on TV as the sound of a raptor, including even eagles, which do not have such a distinctive call. It can be heard very distinctively in the animated film, Mulan.

References and Further Reading

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