Red–Shouldered Hawk

Buteo lineatus

by Dustin Bond

Red–shouldered Hawks, known scientifically as Buteo lineatus, are members of the Accipitridae (hawk family). These hawks are classified as being a member of the Phylum Chordata, the Class Aves (birds) and the Order Falconiformes (hawks and vultures). Red–shouldered Hawk is just one of many common names associated with these amazing birds; others include red–shouldered buzzard, big chicken hawk and winter hawk. Red–shouldered Hawks can be found in wetlands including lowlands, in the many moist mixed woodlands, near wooded rivers, in the areas surrounding timbered swamps and often near streams or bogs. These magnificent birds reside across North America, ranging from Canada to Mexico, including areas west of the Rocky Mountains and in the eastern woodlands. The hawks can be spotted in California year round, while only being seen in New England and the Great Lakes Region during the summer. During the fall months the hawks sense cold weather in the northern states and migrate south for the winter, returning to the north in the warmer summer months that follow.

Red–shouldered Hawks are characterized by their large size, broad wings, and wide, rounded tail. The hawks are named Red–shouldered because the red patch on each wing in the "shoulder" region appear as reddish shoulders while the bird is resting and not in flight. The largest of these hawks can range in size, with their length being between seventeen and twenty four inches, and their wingspread ranging from thirty six to forty eight inches. The female hawks are usually larger then the males, with an average length of twenty and a third inches long, while the male hawks average only eighteen and a third inches long. The hawks have a brownish head and back, reddish breast and underwing coverts, and a pale belly barred heavily with reddish tint. The birds have a short, dark, hooked beak and a dark tinted, wide, rounded tail, which has several narrow, fine white strips. The birds’ broad wings have dark upper flight feathers which are striped with white bars, and pale lower flight feathers which are striped with dark bars. These wings allow the hawks to soar for extended periods of time. The immature Red–shouldered Hawks exhibit slightly different markings than their elders, these differences include a pale chest streaked in light brown splotches, and a brown barred tail.

The hawk’s broad wings, sharp binocular eyesight, precise hearing, and dagger–like talons and hooked beak are the key characteristics which make them especially adapted for hunting. Red–shouldered hawks are carnivorous, diurnal birds which eat mostly small rodents, snakes, frogs, crayfish, toads, lizards, small birds, large insects, and often small mammals. Their largest prey are rabbits and squirrels. The hawks search for their prey while sitting quietly on a low perch or while soaring, circling high over the woodlands. Using their keen senses, these hawks drop directly down from the air onto their prey to kill it.

During the spring months, the male Red–shouldered Hawk attracts females for reproduction by demonstrating courtship behaviors until the female either joins him or responds in some other way. Responding another way, for example, might include the female calling back to the male, or the female demonstrating behaviors similar to that of the male courtship behaviors. These male courtship behaviors involve the male hawk soaring high over the woodlands, then diving dramatically, followed by quickly beating his wings to regain altitude and also calling the female, with his loud screeching "kee–yah kee–yah", which can be heard for miles. Once a female has been attracted and courtship begins the male hawk builds a bulky, large, deep, twig and stick nest usually twenty to sixty feet off the ground, in the crotch of a mature, hardwood tree. Fertilization is internal and in February or March, the female lays two to four pale, whitish eggs which are covered with brownish yellow blotches. While the female incubates the eggs, the male hunts and brings her food. Despite the aggressiveness of these birds, nesting hawks maintain a strong pair bond, and may remain in productive territories for many years.

Red–shouldered hawks are among the animals near the top of the food chain, and because of their size, strength, keen senses, and amazing quickness they will not likely be consumed by other carnivores. Without Red–shouldered hawks, the population of large insects, reptiles and small mammals would grow out of control. Some Red–shouldered hawks consume poultry such as chicken, hence the common name big chicken hawk, which gets many of these birds killed by farmers ever year. The number of these birds has declined in past years, due to loss of habitat. Without protection of the wetlands, which are the prime habitats for these birds, extinction is possible.

Written fall 2000, as a service learning project for Dr. Gary Coté's Biology 102 class at Radford University. Copyright Pathways for Radford.

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