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Red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) are large raptors who prey on rodents, birds and reptiles. These wide-ranging and well-known birds have several lesser-known relatives. Biology differs little from species to species, but each has adapted to unique niches, habitats and ranges.
Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) are medium-size birds of prey who are sympatric with red-tailed hawks -- their ranges overlap. Despite this, the hawks derive resources in slightly different ways. As opposed to the open habitat red-tail hawks prefer, red-shouldered hawks are more commonly associated with closed canopy forests, particularly those near a permanent water source. The diet of red-shouldered hawks includes mammals, birds and reptiles; frogs and crayfish can be important dietary elements in some locations. Adult red-shouldered hawks are not typically hunted by natural predators, but their hatchlings are often targeted by great horned owls (Buteo virginianus) and red-tailed hawks. Accordingly, red-shouldered hawks are highly territorial of their nest sites and will attempt to drive off intruders.
Broad-winged hawks (Buteo platypterus) breed in much of North America but travel to Central and South America for the winter. Broad-winged hawks are shy and so do not often live near human habitation. Broad-winged hawks prefer to live in forests close to clearings or openings for hunting. The diet of the broad-winged hawks varies and changes with the season; rodents are the most important component of the diet year-round, but insects, frogs and snakes are important seasonal items.
Swainson’s hawks (Buteo swainsoni) are hawks of open areas like fields, meadows and prairies. In some places they are known to follow tractors in hopes of scooping up insects and rodents disturbed by the farm utilities. Unlike red-tailed hawks, which are generally solitary, nonmigratory birds, Swainson’s hawks are gregarious during their annual migration. At times, up to 100 hawks flock together; in Argentina, more than 1,000 individuals have been found roosting together.
Rough-legged hawks (Buteo lagopus) derive their name from the feathers covering their legs and feet, which give the legs a scruffy appearance. The feathers are thought to be an adaptation to the cold as these birds breed in the northern reaches of Alaska and Canada. Rough-legged hawks are agile in flight and are known to hover over single spots as kestrels (Falco sparverius) do. When rough-legged hawks spot prey on the ground, they will drop on it from above, grabbing the animal with its talons.
Ferruginous hawks (Buteo regalis) get their name from the rust-colored feathers of their chest and wings. Inhabiting arid and semiarid grasslands, ferruginous hawks predate upon rodents, insects and rabbits that they capture in the open. Jackrabbits (Lepus sp.) form an important part of the species’ diet, and evidence of their consumption is abundant near the hawks’ nest sites. Ferruginous hawks are among the largest Buteos. Large females are nearly the size of eagles.
Approximately 27 described species compose the genus Buteo, and all can be considered cousins of red-tailed hawks. Some, such as the Galapagos (Buteo galapagoensis) and Cape Verde hawks (Buteo bannermani) have very restricted ranges -- quite unlike the red-tailed hawk, who can be found all over North America. While most Buteos are large birds who prefer mammalian prey, some have adopted a unique lifestyle for the genus, like short-tailed hawks (Buteo brachyurus), whose small size helps them to hunt birds.
- The Raptor Trust: Buteos
- U. of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Buteo lineatus
- U. of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Buteo Swainsoni
- U. of Michigan Animal Diversity Web: Buteo platypterus
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Red-shouldered Hawk
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Red-Tailed Hawk
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Rough-Legged Hawk
- USDA Forest Service: Buteo Regalis
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images