The Canadian Peregrine Foundation

Raptor Identification - Red-shouldered Hawk

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The following article about Red-shouldered Hawks was reproduced (with modifications) from the May 2001 issue of CPF's Talon Tales. The article was written by Natalie Helferty.


The colouration of red-shouldered hawks varies considerably; this adult has a particularly rich red breast. (Photo by Marcel Gahbauer)

The red-shouldered hawk is aptly named for its bright rusty red scapulars. Its scientific name, Buteo lineatus, refers to the bird’s boldly striped tail. Other old names for the species include ‘red-bellied hawk’ for the distinctive rufous underbody and underwings of the adult, as well as ‘barred-breasted buzzard’ and ‘red-shouldered falcon’.

A mid-sized buteo of 38-48 cm (15-19"), the red-shouldered hawk is slightly larger than its cousin, the broad-winged hawk, with which it cohabits in deciduous forests. Key field marks of the red-shouldered hawk are its relatively long tail and legs, brown body, heavily rust-barred chest, and black and white ‘checkerboard’ upper wings. In flight, pale crescent-shaped ‘windows’ (actually translucent feathers) are visible on the outer primaries from below. The tail is marked with four broad black bars, whereas the broad-winged hawk has three narrower dark bands. Juveniles are different from adults in colouration, generally brown in appearance with vertical brown streaks on a white chest. They are very similar to juvenile broad-winged hawks, but as with the adults, have more numerous and broader dark tail bands.

The breeding range of the red-shouldered hawk extends across eastern North America, from the Great Lakes-St Lawrence forest ecozone down to Florida and eastern Texas. A separate population exists on the west coast throughout California. The eastern population migrates with other raptors, generally avoiding travel over large bodies of water. Most overwinter in the southern states, though some reach central Mexico and a few remain as far north as the southern Great Lakes.

The habitat niche of the red-shouldered hawk is large deciduous or mixed forests, specifically bottomland forests (swamps, floodplains) or upland forests with nearby wetlands or streams. This habitat association is mainly due to its diet, which comprises a larger proportion of herptiles than any other raptor in North America. Roughly half of its prey consists of amphibians and reptiles such as the leopard frog and garter snake, while the remainder of the diet is mostly wetland mammals such as the star-nosed mole.

The red-shouldered hawk is a sensitive forest species in that it nests in large tracts of mature forest with home ranges in the order of 250 hectares per breeding pair. They have been known to nest in small forest blocks of 4 hectares, but readily abandon these sites when disturbed. Mature forests of 70+ year old trees, with at least 70% canopy cover, are their preferred habitat for nesting. Red-shouldered hawks usually nest in the main crotch of large deciduous trees which have a three-pronged fork of sturdy branches to support their bulky stick nest. American beech is the tree most commonly used for nesting in southern Ontario, and nests are usually located 8 to 24 metres (20 to 60 feet) above the ground. Finger-thick sticks, especially from conifers such as hemlock or balsam fir, form the foundation of the nest, and are lined with finer material like leaves and conifer sprigs, which are replenished from incubation onward. Nests are often reused every year and can become quite large and bulky; some hawks have been known to nest for twenty years in the same tree. Several ‘satellite’ nests are often built in trees within a few hundred metres of the main nest, and are sometimes used in subsequent years, providing some flexibility in nest site selection within a forest block.

In southern Ontario, red-shouldered hawks are back on nesting grounds by mid-March and are often seen performing flight displays, rising in wide spirals and then diving over the forest while calling vigorously with their incessant repeated ‘keeyr’ call, reminiscent of a ring-billed gull. Blue jays often mimic this call in areas where they coexist with red-shouldered hawks. The female lays three (sometimes two or four) white to bluish-white brown-spotted eggs 53 mm (2.1") long in late April to early May. Incubation lasts 28 days with the female doing the incubating and brooding of young until they are a few weeks old; the smaller male does the hunting and provides food to his hungry mate during this period. The young hatch asynchronously, and thus may differ considerably in size. They fledge around late June to mid-July at an age of 39 to 45 days. Fledglings can capture only the smallest prey (e.g. insects) until their hunting skills improve, and both parents hunt to feed their vocal chicks for up to two months after leaving the nest.

Juvenile red-shouldered hawks have no red colouration, and their heavily streaked brown plumage can be confused with that of juvenile broad-winged hawks. This individual was rescued by CPF volunteers in November 1999 after hitting a store window in Etobicoke while on migration, and is seen exhibiting a defense posture a moment after its release along the Scarborough lakeshore. (Photo by Marcel Gahbauer)

The red-shouldered hawk was once the most abundant hawk in eastern North America, but is now the least common. It is ranked as a ‘species of concern’ in Canada and as ‘vulnerable’ in Ontario. Current numbers are very low, but populations have remained relatively stable over the last decade or two. The primary reason for the red-shouldered hawk’s precipitous decline over the last century was the loss and degradation of habitat. As forests were cleared for agriculture, the availability of suitable breeding territories declined, and in the remaining forests the red-shouldered hawk was subject to increased competition from the great horned owl and the red-tailed hawk, which is now the most common hawk in many regions. Increased logging, especially the practice of ‘high-grading’ (selectively cutting the largest trees) contributed further to the rapid decline of the species from the 1930s to the 1980s. Some improvement in forestry practices, especially on Crown land on the Canadian Shield, as well as protection of nest trees, has resulted in a small increase of red-shouldered hawk numbers in central Ontario. Until natural deciduous forest cover has reached maturity though, numbers can be expected to remain below historic levels. The continued expansion of urban sprawl into some of the few remaining high quality breeding areas constitutes another threat to the population in southern Ontario and beyond. The protection and expansion of our deciduous forests is the only way to ensure the stabilization and eventual recovery of the red-shouldered hawk population.

Article by Natalie Helferty, co-author of the 2001 draft report to the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, "Management and Recovery Strategy of Red-shouldered Hawk in Aurora District".

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