The red-shouldered hawk is a distinctively marked common hawk. Its head and back are brownish, the broad wings are black and white, it has rufous shoulder patches, the underparts are barred with reddish-peach, and the tail is banded with black and white. It is medium sized, smaller than a red-tailed hawk and closer in size to a crow, with a thin body and relatively long tail. To identify in flight, watch for the translucent crescents near the wingtips.
Their scientific name is Buteo lineatus. Buteo is a genus of medium to large raptors with a robust body and broad wings. In Africa, Europe and Asia, these birds are called “buzzards”, but here we refer to them as hawks. “Lineatus” definition is “lined” for the barring on the underparts and the bands on the tail.
These hawks live in riparian (areas adjacent to rivers and streams), oak woodlands and even some residential areas.
Their diet consists mostly of small mammals, lizards, snakes and amphibians. They will sometimes eat birds, even taking from feeders, including sparrows, doves and starlings. They hunt from perches, watching for the prey below. When prey is spotted, they descend swiftly, gliding down to snatch a vole or chipmunk from the ground.
The mating display of these hawks is called a “sky dance” where he soars while calling, makes deep dives towards the female, climbs back up in wide spirals and descends and rises again, then finally and rapidly diving to perch upon the female’s back.
It isn’t known which sex selects the nest site, but males arrive first and defend the area. Females follow and both build the nest, usually in a conifer under the canopy but near the tree top. Nests are located near a pond, stream or swamp but can also be found in neighborhoods. They sometimes reuse nests from past years rebuilding as needed. These are very sturdy structures expected to last for seasons. Each new year, however, alterations are needed; new leaves, mosses, shredded bark and a fresh sprig marks their occupancy. A nest in southern California was used for 16 consecutive years. Nests are about two feet in diameter. Parents will continue to add fresh green leaves as the young grow. She will lay 2-5 eggs, incubating them for 32-40 days. Nestlings are able to tear apart prey at 18 days. Young fledge in 42-49 days.
American crows may mob red-shouldered hawks trying to protect their young, but the hawks may chase the crows as well. Both can steal food from one another and both may chase a Great Horned Owl out of their territory. Great Horned Owls will take the hawk’s nestlings.
Red-shouldered hawk numbers are declining slightly mostly due to habitat loss, but also due to predation by Great Horned Owls.
The oldest known Red-shouldered hawk was recaptured in 2000 during banding operations in California. She was at least 25 years, 10 months old and had been banded in 1974.
Tri County Wildlife Care, a local nonprofit started in 1994, is dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of our native wildlife and helping our community live in balance with wildlife. They envision a world where wildlife and people thrive together. For more information call (209) 283-3245, or visit pawspartners.org.