Red-Shouldered Hawk Facts

Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus

Red-shouldered hawk in flight
The red-shouldered hawk has rust-colored shoulders and a banded tail.

Pedro Lastra / Getty Images

The red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) is a medium-sized North American hawk. It gets its common name from the rufous or reddish brown feathers on the shoulders of mature birds. Juveniles are colored differently from their parents and may be confused with juvenile broad-winged and red-tailed hawks.

Fast Facts: Red-Shouldered Hawk

  • Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus
  • Common Name: Red-shouldered hawk
  • Basic Animal Group: Bird
  • Size: 15-25 inches long; 35-50 inches wingspan
  • Weight: 1-2 pounds
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Diet: Carnivore
  • Habitat: Eastern United States and Mexico; United States West Coast
  • Population: Increasing
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern

Description

Adult red-shouldered hawks have brown heads, red "shoulders," reddish chests, and pale bellies marked with red bars. The reddish color is more pronounced in birds living in the western portion of their range. The hawk's tails and wings have narrow white bars. Their legs are yellow. Juveniles are mostly brown, with dark streaks against a buff belly, and narrow white bands on an otherwise brown tail.

Females are slightly larger and heavier than males. Females range from 19 to 24 inches and weigh around 1.5 pounds. Males measure 15 to 23 inches long and weigh about 1.2 pounds. The wingspan ranges from 35 to 50 inches.

In flight, the red-shouldered hawk holds its wings forward when soaring and cups them while gliding. If flies with quick beats interspersed with glides.

Juvenile red-shouldered hawk
Juveniles are brown and buff with streaks on their bellies. cuatrok77 photo / Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

Red-shouldered hawks live on both the East and West Coast of North America. The eastern population lives from southern Canada south to Florida and eastern Mexico and west to the Great Plains. Part of the eastern population is migratory. The northern portion of the range is a breeding range, while the section from Texas into Mexico is a wintering range. In the west, the species lives from Oregon to Baja California. The western population is nonmigratory, although the bird do avoid higher elevations in winter.

The hawks are forest raptors. Preferred habitats include hardwood forests, mixed forests, and deciduous swamps. They also occur in suburban locations near woodlands.

Red-shouldered hawk distribution
Map of the red-shouldered hawk year-round range (green), breeding range (orange), and wintering range (blue).,. Scops / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Diet and Behavior

Like other raptors, red-shouldered hawks are carnivores. They hunt by sight and sound, seeking prey while perched on a tree top or power line or while soaring. They take prey up to their own weight, including rodents, rabbits, small snakes, lizards, birds, frogs, insects, crayfish, and fish. Occasionally, they may eat carrion, such as road-killed deer. Red-shouldered hawks may cache food to eat later.

Reproduction and Offspring

Red-shouldered hawks breed in wooded areas, usually near water. Like other hawks, they are monogamous. Courtship involves soaring, calling, and diving. The display involves either the pair or just the male and typically occurs at mid-day. Mating occurs between April and July. The pair builds a nest of sticks, which may also include moss, leaves, and bark. The female lays three or four blotchy lavender or brown eggs. Incubation takes between 28 and 33 days. The first chick hatches up to a week before the final one. Hatchlings weigh 1.2 ounces at birth. The female has the primary responsibility for incubation and brooding, while the male hunts, but sometimes the male cares for the eggs and chicks.

While the young leave the nest around six weeks of age, they depend on their parents until they are 17 to 19 weeks old and may remain near the nest until the following mating season. Red-shouldered hawks become sexually mature at 1 or 2 years of age. Although the hawk may live 20 years, only half of the chicks survive the first year and few live to 10 years of age. The nesting success rate is only 30%, plus the birds face many predators at all stages of life.

Conservation Status

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) categorizes the red-shouldered hawk as "least concern" with an increasing population. Although abundant prior to 1900, the hawk and other raptors were threatened up to the latter part of the 20th century. Conservation laws, the ban on the pesticide DDT, forest regrowth, and a ban on hunting have helped the red-shouldered hawk recover.

Threats

Deforestation has greatly diminished the red-shouldered hawk's range. Threats to the hawk include poisoning from insecticides, pollution, logging, vehicle collision, and power line accidents.

Sources

  • BirdLife International 2016. Buteo lineatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22695883A93531542. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22695883A93531542.en
  • Ferguson-Lees, James and David A. Christie. Raptors of the World. Houghton Mifflin Harcoat, 2001. ISBN 0-618-12762-3.
  • Rich, T.D., Beardmore, C.J., et al. Partners in Flight: North American Landbird Conservation Plan. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, 2004.
  • Stewart, R. E. "Ecology of a Nesting Red-Shouldered Hawk Population." The Wilson Bulletin, 26-35, 1949.
  • Woodford, J. E.; Eloranta, C. A.; Rinaldi, A. "Nest Density, Productivity, and Habitat Selection of Red-Shouldered Hawks in a Contiguous Forest." Journal of Raptor Research. 42 (2): 79, 2008. doi:10.3356/JRR-07-44.1