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Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Breeding: Western birds occur west of the Sierran Divide from noRed-shouldered Hawk range maprthern California south to northern Baja California. In the east, widespread from the eastern edge of the Great Plains to Atlantic Coast, south to the Gulf Coast and Florida; a very scarce breeder in eastern and central Mexico.



Winter: Sporadically throughout the breeding range in eastern North America, but primarily from eastern Kansas to southern New England south to central Mexico; most numerous in the Gulf coast states and Georgia. California population is present year round.

Breeding habitat

Varies from bottomland hardwoods and riparian areas to upland deciduous or mixed deciduous-conifer forest, and almost always includes some form of water, such as a swamp, marsh, river, or pond. In the west, sometimes occurs in coniferous forests, and has been expanding range of occupied habitats to include various woodlands, including stands of eucalyptus trees amid urban sprawl.

Conservation status

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a widespread raptor that is found in many different forest types throughout its range. It is considered a species of special concern in many northern states and in Canada, although populations appear to be increasing in many areas. As a top predator, conserving populations is important, and this will require knowledge of precise habitat requirements, sensitivity to fragmentation and disturbance, and how these vary across the species’ range.


Male: A medium-sized, slender Buteo with long legs and a long tail; larger than the Broad-winged Hawk and smaller than the Red-tailed Hawk. Upperparts are dark with pale spotting, rusty-reddish feathers on the wing create the distinctive shoulder patch. The underparts show rusty to rufescent barring, some races appear much paler, other races show brown streaks on breast. In flight, underwing pattern shows a translucent, pale crescent near the black wing tips and appears two-toned. The tail has several wide, dark bars; the intervening narrow stripes and the tip of the tail are white, and there is variation in the number of tail bars among adults and juveniles. On perched birds one may observe that the legs and feet are yellow, as is the cere (skin above the bill); the eye is dark.

Female: Plumage is the same as adult male; slightly larger than male, although there is considerable size overlap.

Juvenile: Lacking the extensive rufous coloring of the adults, first year birds are variably streaked with brown underneath, lack the red shoulder but may show some reddish speckling above, but do show a similar tail pattern. Legs and feet are yellow, as is the cere, but the eye is light brown.

Note: Considerable variation among individuals is possible, especially between California, eastern, and Florida birds; this variation exists among all age classes.


Calls: The most common call is a kee-aah , with the accent on first syllable, and the second extended with a falling inflection. Males gives a single or repeated kip when bringing prey to the nest, the female responds similarly; nestlings give a chirping call. Other Vocalizations are variants of the kee-aah or kip.

Note: the Blue Jay is notorious for mimicking the cry of the Red-shouldered Hawk, and often hard to distinguish.

Foraging strategy

A diurnal predator, generally hunts from a perch in the forest canopy by dropping on prey sighted below.

Birds are caught by surprise by low, direct, accipter-like flight; may fly from a forest perch and snatch prey from water surface, may hunt from ground by catching small mammals as they emerge from burrows. Suitable perches, with heights ranging from 6-15 feet (2-4 meters) above ground, include poles, fences, hay piles, and trees


Primarily take small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Less often carrion, grasshoppers during outbreaks; crayfish are also important in some regions.

Behavior and displays

  • Soaring flight with wings and tail outspread when circling above territory; flaps occasionally, often fast like an accipiter.
  • Aggressive response increases from incubation through nestling stage.
  • Interspecific intruders near nests are chased and may be attacked.
  • Intruding conspecifics are subject to calling, stooping on perched bird, chasing flights, occasionally physical contact has been observed.
  • Reaction to human intruders near nest ranges from quietly leaving nest to perching nearby and calling, circling over nest, stooping on intruder, and even striking intruder with claws open.
  • American Crows and Red-shouldered Hawks may chase each other when attempting to steal food from each other; they also jointly mob Great Horned Owls.


  • Aerial nuptial displays are impressive, including "high-circling" and "sky-dancing," both extremely vocal performances.
  • Sky-dancing consists of one individual, presumably the male, riding a thermal upward, crying as it circles. Then it drops into a steep dive with folded wings, pulling up and then shooting upward again. Neighboring pairs often join in, with as many as ten birds involved. The sky-dance can be immediately followed by copulation, which occurs repeatedly and over considerable time.


Nest site: Usually nests below the canopy in deciduous or mixed forest, often near some form of water, e.g. a pond, stream, or swamp. In deciduous trees the nest is typically more than halfway up tree in a crotch of main trunk; in conifers, nests are usually built against the main trunk where a whorl of other branches meet the trunk.

Height: Typically from 30-60 feet (9-20 meters), but can range from 4-115 feet (1.5-35 meters).

Nest: Composed mostly of live or dead sticks, dried leaves, strips of bark, Spanish Moss, and lichens; the inner cavity is lined with finer shreds of inner bark, mosses, lichens, and sprigs of conifer are added at egg-laying.

Eggs: 1-6, usually 2-4, eggs laid between January-June, mostly during March-April.

Incubation period: Incubation begins with the laying of the first egg, and is performed by both sexes, but mainly the female who is fed by the male. Young hatch asynchronously, around day 33.

Nestling period: The semi-altricial young are inactive, becoming active at about 10 days. Nestlings are thickly covered with long, soft, silky down and vary in size due to asynchronous hatching. Feathering begins about 2 weeks. Nestlings vary in size Young leave the nest at 5-6 weeks, first flight may not occur until day 45 or older.

Fledgling period: Parents supply food to young for about 8-10 weeks after fledging.

Broods: Single brooded.

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