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Raptor Spotlight: Raptors at Wild Wings

Featured Bird - “Phoenix”

Red-shouldered Hawk

There are five subspecies of Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus), which are separated based on geography and physical characteristics.  The Florida subspecies, buteo lineatus extimus and buteo lineatus alleni, is paler, having a gray head and very faint barring on the breast.  The California subspecies, Buteo lineatus elegans, and the Texas subspecies, Buteo lineatus Texans, however, have more vibrant, deep red markings on the lesser secondary upperwing converts, underwing coverts and breast. 

Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized, broad-winged hawks with a relatively long tail and heavy bodies.  Adults have a brown head, a dark brown back and reddish underparts with dark brown streaks.  Juveniles appear similar to adults, but have creamy underparts with dark brown spots and streaks.  Both adult and juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks have rufous lesser secondary upperwing coverts, which give the impression of red shoulders.  The tail is dark with 3 – 4 narrow white bands.  The flight feathers of adults are barred black and white and show a white crescent-shaped window across the primaries, which is visible in flight.  Red-shouldered Hawk’s eyes change color as they age.  They have yellow eyes when they are young and brown eyes as adults.
Female average Length: 19 – 24"  Wingspan: 42" Weight:1.5 lbs
Male average Length: 17 - 23"  Wingspan: 38" Weight: 1.2 lbs

Red-shouldered Hawks are solitary and territorial.  They do not form flocks, even in the winter.  However, these soaring hawks are easy to spot, especially during the early part of the nesting season, when they engage in spectacular, and noisy, aerial courtship displays.  Males may also perform the “sky-dance” by soaring high in the air, and then making a series of steep dives, each followed by a wide spiral and rapid ascent.  These courtship flights usually occur in late morning and early afternoon.  Once they have begun to nest, they are quiet and secretive, and may often be overlooked. 

The Red-shouldered Hawk has a two-part call, “kee-ah kee-ah” which is often imitated by the blue jay.  Red-shouldered hawks are quite vocal, especially during the spring courtship.

Hunting & Food:
Red-shouldered Hawks use sight and hearing to hunt successfully while perched on a treetop or soaring over woodlands.  The shape and structure of their wings allow them to soar effortlessly for extended periods of time searching for food.  When they sight prey, they kill it by dropping directly onto it from the air.  The Red-shouldered Hawk may cache food near their nest for later consumption.  They feed on small mammals, the largest of these being rabbits and squirrels.  Other food items include reptiles, amphibians, birds, and large insects.

The Red-shouldered Hawk often returns to the same territory for many years constructing a new stick nest or refurbishing the same nest with greenery from year to year.  The female lays from 2 to 5 eggs over the course several days.  Each egg is incubated as it is laid therefore the young do not all hatch at the same time as with some other hawks.  There could be up to 7 days between the first and the last chick to hatch.  The incubation period is on average 33 days.  The male brings food to the nest for the female and nestlings during the nestling stage.  The young hawks fledge about 45 days later but continue to be fed by the parents for another 10 to 13 weeks.  After becoming independent, they may still roost in or near the nest at night.  Adult plumage appears in the second year.  The Red-shouldered Hawks is usually sexually mature at 1 to 2 years old. 

Incubating red-shouldered adults, nestlings and eggs are vulnerable to predation by great horned owls and raccoons.  Non-incubating adults are not usually vulnerable to predation.  Before Red-shouldered hawks are a year old many die from accidents, starvation, or sometimes killed by Great-horned Owls.  Adult mortality is about 20 to 40 percent annually.  The Red-shouldered Hawk has an average lifespan of 25 – 26 months.  The oldest known Red-shouldered had lived 19 years and 11 months.  Known predators include raccoons, great horned owls.  Major modern threat is deforestation, which has eliminated these hawks as breeders in some areas.

The Red-shouldered Hawk favors stream sides with open woods and small clearings to hunt for prey.  During the non-breeding season they are less restrictive in their habitat use.  They will inhabit uplands, fragmented woods, smaller forests, and open areas.  The Red-shouldered Hawk has also shown a high adaptability to human-altered habitats, including urban areas.  A pair will use the same territory of about 100 to 150 acres of suitable habitat year after year. 

Name Derivation:
The scientific name comes from the Latin words buteo, referring to a kind of falcon or hawk, and lineatus, meaning striped and refers to the tail.  The common name, Red-shouldered hawk, suggests that the reddish lesser secondary upper wing coverts give the impression of red shoulders.  The Red-shouldered Hawk has also been called Red-bellied Hawk, Winter Hawk, and Red-shouldered Buzzard.  They also have been nicknamed “hen hawk” for their tendency to take advantage of poultry farms indulging on a hen or two.

Interesting Facts:
• By the time nestling Red-shouldered Hawks are five days old they   can shoot their feces over the edge of their nest.  Bird poop on the ground is a sign of an active nest.

• Although the American Crow often mobs the Red-shouldered Hawk, sometimes the relationship is not so one-sided.  Though they chase each other and try to steal food from each other they also
collaborate and join forces to chase a Great Horned Owl out of the hawk’s territory.

• Have been known to hunt from the ground to catch mammals in burrows, hopping after them when they come out.



Wild Wings
27 Pond Road, Honeoye Falls, NY  14472
Phone: 585.334.7790