How to Identify Red Tailed Hawk Feathers – Ultimate Guide With Pictures

How To Identify Red Tailed Hawk Feathers

The Red Tailed Hawk is the most common hawk in North America and is one of the most beautiful birds on the continent. Once called the “Chicken Hawk” and hunted by angry farmers for its habit of attacking and eating chickens, it is now one of the most respected and sought species for birders because of its beautiful size and its often hard-to-spot nature. While they’re very widespread throughout the continent, they aren’ta always easy to find.

So, if you found a feather near what you think is a Red Tailed Hawk nest, it is important to understand its identifying traits, including whether it came from a juvenile or if you just found an owl feather. You also need to know whether you can keep the feather, as federal laws may prevent you from taking it. This guide will teach you how to identify red tailed hawk feathers when you’re out birding or just exploring your favorite natural habitat.

What Do Red Tailed Hawk Feathers Look Like?

How To Identify Red Tailed Hawk Feathers
Adult Red-Tailed Hawk Feathers. Image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Red Tailed Hawk Tail Feathers have a detailed array of different colors that make them quite attractive. The tips have some light weight at the end that transitions to red. Just after the tip, there’s a thick black stripe through the whole feather. After this strip, thick bands of red and thin bands of black alternate down the feather.

As the feather nears the bird’s body, the color lightens up and becomes white along the side. This beautiful arrangement of colors gives this hawk its distinctive look and produces a feather that’s fairly easy to identify once you notice one in the wild.

How To Identify Red Tailed Hawk Feathers
Adult Red-tailed Hawk Primary Wing Feathers. Image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

You should also look for a pale panel along the upper side of the wing, a panel that differs slightly in color from the primarily red and black you find on most Red Tailed Hawk wings. This pale panel indicates a primary feather. Hold the feather up to a light source and look up to see this pale patch.

Typically, this identifying trait means you’ve found either the primary feather of an adult Red Tailed Hawk or the feather of a juvenile hawk. While the feathers of these young hawks are basically the same as the adult, they do have a few differences that are important to note.

What Do Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk Feathers Look Like?

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk Primary Wing Feathers
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk Primary Wing Feathers (BRD 1798–juvenile male Red-tailed Hawk from El Paso County, TX) Image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service

Juvenile Red Tailed Hawk Feathers will look basically the same as the adult. They’ll naturally be smaller, sometimes as little as half the length and width of an adult feather. The biggest tell for a juvenile feather is the scruffier and somewhat duller color typical of young birds.

These pre-molt feathers are typically not as sharp as the adult bird and fluffier. These fluffier feathers provide young birds with a softer and more comfortable plumage that also keeps them warmer in cold weather. Their duller color also makes it harder for predators to spot them in the wild.

Note that you’ll also see heavier brown speckles on the wings, speckles that may also turn completely white as the bird matures.

Juvenile red tail hawk tail feathers
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk Tail Feathers (Note they are dull and not the brick red of an adult.) Image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Juvenile tail feathers are usually tan, rather than the rust color of the adult, with thinner black bands and an overall fluffier and puffier feel.

How Long are Red Tailed Hawk Feathers?

variety of sizes and colorations from various red tailed hawk tail feathers
Observe the variety of sizes and colorations from various red-tailed hawk tail feathers. Image courtesy of the US F&WS.

Red Tailed Hawk Feathers can differ in length depending on the size of the bird and where the feather originated. For example, some tail feathers may be as long as 23.4 centimeters (nine inches), while others are as short as 20.3 centimeters (eight inches), with shorter feathers in juveniles.

Adult Red tailed Hawk Secondary Wing Feathers
Note that these secondary (wing) feathers on an adult red tailed hawk can be as short as 16 cm (6 inches). BRD 1796–adult male Red-tailed Hawk from Jackson County, OR. Image courtesy of the US F&WS.

Longer feathers typically occur along their sides, with shorter ones near the head. Note that these sizes are just an average, as there may be some hawks with much longer feathers or with shorter. It all depends on the season, as well, as some may grow thicker plumage in winter for extra insulation. (Read more red-tailed hawk facts in our post here!)

What Does the Red Tailed Hawk Look Like?

Have you ever found a feather moments after seeing a bird fly away from the area? It’s not uncommon, but can be frustrating if you don’t know what the bird looked like. The Red Tailed Hawk is a fairly large bird, the second-biggest Buteo Hawk on the continent, so if you see a big hawk, it’s probably it. (Find more tips in our post “How to identify a red-tailed hawk“)

How big varies depending on the bird, but they typically grow from anywhere between 17 and 22 inches (34-56 centimeters), with a wingspan of 45 to 52 inches (114-133 centimeters). They weigh between 24 and 45 ounces (60-1,300 grams), though females are both slightly larger and heavier than males.

The Red Tailed Hawk also has a distinctive look that resembles an eagle at first. They have broad, rounded wings with a short and wide tails. Look for a rich brown top and a paler bottom, with a streaked belly and dark bars between the shoulder and wrist. They typically fly fairly high, so identifying them on the wing might be tough without a pair of spotting glasses. (Related: our post on the best books for identifying hawks, especially at a distance).

Can You Possess A Red Tailed Hawk Feather?

The Red Tailed Hawk is one of many birds protected by federal law, and it is illegal to own them as pets or possess them in any other way. While it may be possible to find illegal pet dealers who sell these birds, they make awful pets because of their wild traits and a great need to hunt.

Significantly, you cannot possess or own any part of this bird, including its nests, eggs, and feathers. The only people who can own Red Tail Hawk feathers or other items are some Native American tribes. This loophole occurs because these tribes consider the bird religiously significant to their beliefs.

That said, they also cannot sell these feathers to people outside their tribe, meaning you couldn’t legally go to a reservation or a nearby Native American store and buy Red Tailed Hawk feathers. Anyone selling them in this way is breaking federal law and may be prosecuted.

Note that states are allowed to pass more restrictive laws regarding Red Tailed Hawks but cannot bypass federal regulations. So, while they can pass laws restricting things like various bird calls, they can’t pass laws making it legal to hunt Red Tailed Hawks.

If you’re pro enough to identify red-tailed hawk feathers, this beginner red-tailed hawk ID quiz will be a piece of cake!

What Does Finding a Hawk Feather Mean?

Finding a hawk feather is typically a spiritually meaningful discovery, depending on various mythological beliefs. For example, some believe that hawk feathers represent the Universe asking you to pay attention to your dreams and to follow them down whatever path they take you.

It may also show that your life is going to change positively, toward happiness, love, and success. Feathers may also show that whatever decision you need to make, it will be the right one. Hawks are wise birds in most mythological traditions.

Beyond these positive symbols, hawk feathers may also indicate independence and adaptability. In other words, the Universe is letting you know that you’re going to be okay in life. Other meanings include encouragement and protection from your Higher Being, as well as higher intuition and even psychic powers.

Related post: Osprey Feathers Meaning

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Hawk and Owl Feather?

Barn Owl primary wing feathers
Barn Owl primary flight feathers. Note the serrated edges on the right side of each feather. (BRD 2999–adult Barn Owl from Josephine county, OR Note–Pale plumage). Image courtesy of US F&WS.

If you find a large feather in the woods near an animal carcass, there’s a good chance that it could be a hawk or owl feather. But which is it? Some owl feathers may have a similar color scheme to hawks, though there are differences in their overall size, shape, and coloring that help tell them apart.

Owl feathers typically have a thin layer of fluff on the surface and frayed or even serrated feather edges that differentiate them from hawk feathers. These unique feather shapes aren’t an accident but a useful evolutionary advantage that helps the owl hunt at night.

Great Horned Owl Tail Feathers 1
Great Horned Owl Tail Feathers. Image courtesy of US F&WS.

The fluffier feather surface and frayed edges help owls fly more quietly at night, which helps them hunt more sensitive mice and other creatures that have sharp senses of hearing. That’s why so many birders have been surprised by the sudden appearance of owls at night: while not completely silent, their flight is comparatively quiet.

Where Can You Find Red Tailed Hawks?

If you’re interested in spotting Red Tailed Hawks or want to find and take a photo of their feather (remember, you can’t keep one), it is important to know where these birds like to hang out to ensure that you find them more easily. Typically, you’ll find them in deciduous forests and open country.

They live in just about every section of the continent, as far north as Manitoba all the way south to Florida and Texas. You often find them in southern regions during the south and in the north during the summer, as they migrate regularly with the weather to stay comfortable.

They often nest in large pine trees or rock ledges at least 30-40 feet or 9-12 meters above the ground. Look for them soaring near telephone poles, fence posts, golf courses, open land, and even near highways. Bring along your spotting glasses because these birds fly very high.

Find more hawks near you with locations for watching hawk migrations across the United States!

Resources for identifying red tailed hawk feathers

The US Fish and Wildlife Service maintains the “Feather Atlas” with thousands of pictures of bird feathers for comparison and research. They have hundreds of pictures of red tailed hawk feathers you can use to practice identifying them!

In addition, the US Fish and Wildlife Service generously allows the public to use their images freely without permission.

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