Red Shouldered Hawk-our fearless buteo


If you live in a Red-shouldered Hawk’s territory, you know it. (If you aren’t sure, you most likely don’t.)  Even non-bird-oriented people can’t ignore this noisy, fearless, small buteo. At one time mostly residents of the county’s lowland riparian woodland, Red-shouldered Hawks in widespread abundance today appear to be a fairly recent phenomenon in San Diego County, either because the hawks were more tight-lipped in historical times or they just weren’t here. (More likely the latter.) Over the 20th century, they have moved into oak woodlands at all elevations. They also began nesting in euca­lyptus trees as soon as those became widely available. During the last quarter century, Red-shoulders also became more urban birds, incorporating neighborhood palms into their nest site selections. Clearly, the Red-shouldered Hawks’ adaptability has been working in high gear.


The slightest of the buteos of the West, an adult Red-shoulder shows dark-and-white checkered flight feathers; a warm reddish-to-peach barring on the breast; a short, strongly banded tail; and the eponymous rusty slash on each shoulder easily visible when the bird is perched. In flight, translucent crescents near the wingtips help to identify the species at a distance.


Morphology and genetics put this hawk in the Buteo genus with, for example, Broad-winged, Swainson’s, Red-tailed, and Ferruginous hawks in the West. However, a Red-shoulder’s habits and habitats often resemble other raptor families. Rather than circling over open country as a Red-tail does, it frequently hunts from a perch, as an accipiter does (e.g., Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned hawks). It flaps its wings quickly and then glides through a woodland beneath the canopy, again like an accipiter. Unlike the accipiters though (primarily bird eaters), Red-shoulders eat mostly small mammals, lizards, snakes, and amphibians. In open areas, individuals can even fly low, Northern-Harrier-like, surprising prey at close range. They also hunt from the ground, catching small mammals as they emerge from burrows.


On territory, Red-shoulders can be aggressive, sometimes locking talons with intruding hawks and dive-bombing crows, Great Horned Owls, and even humans. Red-shoulders lay eggs in stick nests from early March to late April, often reusing the same nest across multiple breeding seasons. The female provides most of the incubation for eggs (roughly five weeks) and generally, all of the brooding for young; the male supplies the female and young with nearly all their food. The young leave the nest at about six weeks old, although the parents may continue to feed the kids for another two months or so.


Buteo lineatus, the Red-shouldered Hawk’s scientific name, basically translates to “striped hawk,” referring to the contrasting bands on the tail. The cinnamon-colored breast spilling over onto the shoulders gives rise to its common name “Red-shouldered.” The term “hawk,” derives from Anglo-Saxon hafoc, their name for this type of bird.


in this county, the Red-shouldered Hawk easily wins the “most vocal raptor” contest. Years ago, a writer described the vocalization as “a ringing series that sets the woods agog, KEE-ah!, KEE-ah!, KEE-a!” Early naturalists called the Red-shoulder “the singing hawk,” referring more to the species’ incessant noisiness than to any sweetness of its calls. These hawks call any time of year, but it can become more regular and frequent between November and March. (Note also that when the young fledge—late June and July—the entire family becomes a vociferous crew winging around the area.) Why should our local Red-shoulders be so noisy in mid-winter? In these pre-breeding months, the obvious reasons would be to advertise an already-occupied nesting territory (“It’s my yard!”), to court a potential mate (“Want to see my etchings?”), or perhaps both.


However, competition for good nest trees with prey nearby can be fierce. Although some of that competition may come from other Red-shoulders, a bigger problem (in several senses) can be Great Horned Owls. These owls don’t build their own nests; they re-use the nests of other large birds, such as the sturdy stick-bowls constructed by Red-shoulders during a previous nesting season. So the breeding plot thickens. A more laid-back, call-now-and-then-and-chase-an-interloper-or-two system of land tenure works fine for a Red-shoulder until November and December. Around then, a Great Horned Owl or two, determined to power-grab last year’s hawk nest, can show up, calling like crazy. A Great Horned Owl is 25% taller and more than twice as heavy as a Red-shoulder. So what’s a smaller Red-shoulder to do? Become cacophonously, clangorously, clamorously, take-no-prisoners aggressive. Shriek for territory defense and to secure a mate to better defend your territory. And so, come December, when you hear that insistent one-per-second KEE-ah!, “setting the woods agog,” just remember. It’s not easy being a Red-Shouldered Hawk in the San Diego County woodlands.


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Photo credit:  Steve Brad,


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