Creature Feature: Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus)

Red-shouldered Hawk on snag
Red-shouldered Hawk perched on branch - Photo Earl Harrison

Red-shouldered Hawk perched on branch – Photo Earl Harrison

I was gazing out at the bird-feeder when the hawk cruised in. As the birds scattered, I expected the usual Cooper’s Hawk, but was startled when a Red-shouldered Hawk did a quick turn past the feeder and chased a squirrel off into the bushes. I never did see the outcome, but made a mental note: another adaptation by a very adaptable buteo. Red-shouldered Hawks were rare around Columbus when I moved here 20 years ago, but they seem to be adapting to urban habitats and becoming more common in Columbus parks.

Red-shouldered Hawks (Buteo lineatus) are the handsome relatives of Red-tailed Hawks. In most of the US, they’re seen less often than their open-country cousin. This has less to do with their numbers (they’re common) than with their preference for moist forest habitats. I grew up in Florida, one of the few places where this pattern is reversed: Red-shouldereds were everywhere and far outnumbered their larger congener. This switch also shows up in many of the forested river valleys of the South and the Appalachians, even in urban riverside forests. As mature forest has returned to many of the hills and valleys of the eastern US, even in large city parks, Red-shouldered Hawks appear to have moved in.

Red-shouldered Hawk perched in coniferous tree - Photo Earl Harrison

Red-shouldered Hawk perched in a coniferous tree (Photo Earl Harrison)

This shifting pattern tells us something about Red-shouldered Hawks. They’re forest skulkers and often nab lots of non-mammal prey. Frogs, snakes, lizards, birds, crayfish – they’re all on the Red-shouldered menu. The classic pose of a hunting Red-shouldered is a perched bird, hunched-over and looking down. Basically, any small animal that has the misfortune of moving under a perched Red-shouldered might join it for lunch. This is quite unlike the soaring hunting that characterizes Red-tailed Hawks. Not that Red-shouldered hawks won’t learn some new tricks. Some of them will stalk calling frogs on their mating ponds; others have learned to check bird-feeders, as much for the mammals as for the birds. This is a quite flexible hawk.

Because of their stealthy nature, a Red-shouldered can go unnoticed most times of the year. There are a few times when they are not so retiring. In early spring (read: March and April here in central Ohio), they set up territories, flying and calling much of the daylight hours. The males do a very noisy flight display, soaring in high circles up over the female, calling their distinctive “kee-yer” repeatedly, before diving down past her. Both sexes will build the nest or refurbish an old nest. Once the female has laid her 2-4 eggs, the noise level becomes much lower, and the birds can be hard to find. When they are feeding hatchlings, however, calling starts up again, probably to deter other Red-shouldereds from poaching food from their territory. Here in central Ohio, nesting pairs are now in many of our Metro Parks and riverside wood lands; the birds at Blacklick Woods have been particularly easy to locate the past few years. This past summer they nested square in the middle of a picnic area, and they made dives at a few parkgoers before the nest area was taped off. Not exactly ‘unnoticed’.

Red-shouldered Hawk In Flight - Photo Earl Harrison

Red-shouldered Hawk in flight (Photo Earl Harrison)

The other time to see Red-shouldered Hawks is on migration. Like other North American buteos, many of these hawks flock up and head south for the winter. You can see the occasional small flock around central Ohio, but your better bet is to head up to Lake Erie. In fall, flocks of many hawk species funnel around the west end, and huge totals can be seen at Lake Erie Metro Park south of Detroit. Red-shouldered Hawks tend to peak in late October here. In spring the direction is reversed, and the better spots are along the Ohio shore, at Magee Marsh, and Maumee Bay. Not all of our birds pull up stakes in the fall, however. Some Red-shouldereds appear to tough out the winter here in central Ohio, and local Christmas Bird Counts always find a few of these hardy individuals. As our urban areas gain more trees and parks, these hawks seem to be making themselves at home here any time of the year.

Explore more details at the Audubon online field guide.

Red-shouldered Hawk perched in the sun - Photo David Slater

Red-shouldered Hawk perched in the sun (Photo David Slater)