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What Do Red-Tailed Hawks Eat?

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If you live in North America and see a hawk, most likely it’s a Red-Tail. Red-Tailed Hawks are the most abundant, and commonly seen hawk in the US. Also called chicken hawks, these birds of prey are made for life in the open air. They love to soar over open fields, streams, and woods but it isn’t unusual to find one of these hawks perched on a light pole as you drive down your neighborhood street.

Knowing these birds are constantly in survival mode, you may ask the question, what do red-tailed hawks eat? These powerful birds are top-notch hunters that will easily snatch prey weighing less than 5 pounds without much of an issue. Let’s take a look at what red-tailed hawks enjoy most. This will give you a new respect for these powerful birds while also providing you with a heads-up on animals that may be on their menu.

A Hawk’s Way of Life

No matter where you spot a red-tailed hawk, most likely, it’s in hunting mode. Hunting is a way of life for these beautiful birds. While on a flight, or sitting atop a favorite perch, they are always scouring the ground beneath in hopes of finding their next meal.

Image Credit: sindinh2000, Pixabay

A Red-Tailed Hawk’s Diet

A red-tailed hawk prefers a diet consisting of small mammals, other birds, and even reptiles. These winged predators use their environment to their advantage. According to the area, they call home, they will change their eating habits. This is the advantage of a varied diet. If mice and voles are prevalent, those will become their main source of nutrition. If it happens to be frogs and snakes, then they will make great meals as well.

Most commonly, red-tailed hawks feed on squirrels, rats, voles, and rabbits. When necessary, due to the availability in their habitat these birds will move on to frogs, toads, bats, snakes, and even other birds similar in size to pheasants. With their varied diet, these raptors are not picky and will make a meal out of almost anything they can catch and carry in their talons. This includes most mammals under 5 pounds.

The Thrill of the Hunt

Like most predatory birds, the red-tailed hawk is an excellent hunter although they prefer to do so in the late evening hours, just before darkness creeps in. This makes these hawks diurnal since they struggle to see their small prey at night. Nighttime is also when the red-tailed hawk is most likely to encounter its biggest enemy, the Horned Owl. While the red-tailed hawk may avoid conflict with these owls, don’t think they aren’t willing to outsmart them. It isn’t uncommon for one of these hawks to swoop in and steal a hunt from their enemies. They are clever enough to get away with it.

Red-tailed hawks use their keen eyesight to help them locate prey. Whether it is a groundhog playing in the woods or a mouse scurrying to a hidey-hole, hawks can easily pinpoint their next meal. Once they do, they will swoop down and attack or hover above ground to wait their prey out. Unlike some other birds of prey that use their beaks to kill, the red-tailed hawk uses their talons to put their prey out of its misery. When the feast is won, smaller prey is taken back to the nest, while larger animals are eaten mostly on the ground where the hunt took place.

Image Credit: edbo23, Pixabay

Do Red-Tailed Hawks Hunt House Pets?

Unfortunately, there have been many reports of hawks and other birds of prey claiming household pets as prey when they are on the hunt. While this isn’t necessarily common for red-tailed hawks, that doesn’t mean it will not happen. The larger these birds get, the bigger prey they go after.

Red-tailed hawks aren’t as big as some other species of predatory birds. Your 100 pound Husky may not be in danger when it comes to these birds, but your 4 pound Yorkie could be. The same can be said for most housecats. Hawks and other birds don’t know the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild animal. To avoid any issues, and keep your precious pets safe, always keep a close eye on them when they are outside. Red-tailed hawks are fast, smart, and agile. They will not turn away a meal, even if it may leave you heartbroken.


By learning more about what red-tailed hawks eat, you can understand their behavior. This is great information for when you spot one of these predatory birds in your neck of the woods. While the local squirrel population may be in a bit of trouble, if you stay diligent, your family pets will be safe while these beautiful birds live their lives and flourish as they always have.

Featured Image Credit: rck_953, Shutterstock

About the Author Robert Sparks

Robert’s obsession with all things optical started early in life, when his optician father would bring home prototypes for Robert to play with. Nowadays, Robert is dedicated to helping others find the right optics for their needs. His hobbies include astronomy, astrophysics, and model building. Originally from Newark, NJ, he resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the nighttime skies are filled with glittering stars.