Natural History

Hawks belong to the Accipitridae family in the Falconiformes order, which consists of diurnal (active during the day) birds of prey. Like other birds of prey, the females are usually larger than the males; this is called sexual dimorphism. The female can hunt for larger prey, such as rabbits, while the male hunts for smaller prey, such as mice. This way, they do not compete with each other and can maximize their opportunities. Maymont has three species of hawk: the red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk and the Cooper’s hawk.

The red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is the most common and widespread American member of the genus Buteo, which also includes the red-shouldered hawk. They are carnivorous and opportunistic feeders, eating mostly small mammals, birds, and reptiles.Males and females look alike, but the females are slightly larger. Adult red-tailed hawks range from 18 to 25 inches tall, with a wingspan of approximately four feet. One unique characteristic about the red-tailed hawk is their monogamous nature. They will mate with the same hawk for many years and will only take a new mate when their original mate dies. The first red-tailed hawk arrived at Maymont in 1993 after it was hit by a car and deemed incapable of surviving in the wild. Maymont’s other red-tailed hawk arrived in 2008 after also being hit by a car and suffering permanent loss of one eye.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) are distinguished by their red “shoulder” that is visible when they are perched. Adults have a brownish head, a reddish chest, a pale belly with reddish bars, and tail marked with narrow white bars. The red-shouldered hawk is leaner than the red-tailed hawk and considered a medium-sized hawk. A mature adult’s wingspan will range between 38 to 42 inches. These hawks do well in areas with the barred owl because they are diurnal, so they do not directly compete for food. Maymont has two red-shouldered hawks that came to us from licensed rehabilitators. The first arrived in 2009 with a permanently damaged wing and the second arrived in 2012 after having to have an eye removed. Both are suspected to have obtained their injuries from being hit by cars. Being migratory birds, it is important to note that we have permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to possess and put these birds on exhibit.

Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) are the bird world’s most skillful fliers and have adapted well to city life. They can maneuver through tree tops, tall buildings, and power lines with ease and speed, though you are most likely to see one prowling above a forest edge or field. They feed on song birds, such has doves and starlings, and will sometimes rob nests or feed on small mammals, such as chipmunks. The males weigh between 7.8 and 14.5 ounces, while the females are slightly larger, weighing between 11.6 and 24 ounces. Both have a wingspan between 25 and 35 inches. The Cooper’s hawk has a distinctive long tail with a rounded tail end, which aids in fast flight. They are found throughout the United States, and breed in the Northern US and Canada during the summer and retreat to the Southern US and Central America in winter. Maymont has one Cooper’s hawk that can be seen in Raptor Valley.

Fun Facts

  • The cry of the red-tailed hawk is used in movies for almost every other eagle and hawk.
  • Young red-tailed hawks are duller, more streaked, and lack the rust-colored tail of adults; they are distinguished from red-shouldered hawks by their stocky build, broader, more rounded wings, and white chest.
  • Red-tailed hawks get their burnt-orange tail with the first molt, in the early summer of their second year.
  • Hawk feathers are not silent like owl feathers.
  • Red-shouldered hawks hunt by watching quietly from a low perch, and then dropping down quickly to capture prey such as snakes and frogs.