How to Identify a Red-Shouldered Hawk

Updated: Jan. 26, 2024

Mixing up red-shouldered hawks with the more common red-tailed hawks? Give your bird of prey ID know-how a boost with this hawk rundown.

Hawks can be pretty tough to correctly identify. Most common hawk species don’t have a lot of obvious visual differences to distinguish between them. Red-shouldered hawks are often confused with red-tailed hawks and broad-winged hawks. Here’s how you can be ready to identify a red-shouldered hawk the next time one soars overhead.

What Does a Red-Shouldered Hawk Look Like?

250321098 1 Martha Mazza Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Martha Mazza
Close-up look at a red-shouldered hawk

A noticeable feature of red-shouldered hawks is their reddish or rufous underbellies. In comparison, the more widespread red-tailed hawk has a white underbelly. Another way to tell is by looking at the visually striking tail. It has white and black bands or stripes. This bird gets its name from the rusty red plumage on its upper wing aka “shoulder.”

Male and female red-shouldered hawks look nearly identical but on average, the females tend to be larger than the males. This medium-sized species has an average wingspan of 37 to 42 inches. Juveniles look similar to adults but they have narrower tail bands and their upper wings aren’t as red.

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Habitat and Range

252222882 1 Janet Reid Bnb Bypc2020Courtesy Janet Reid
Red-shouldered hawk in flight

One of the best ways to start figuring out if you’ve seen a red-shouldered hawk is to know their range. Red-shouldered hawks are found throughout the East, the upper Midwest and the South. There’s also a subspecies that lives along the West Coast, primarily in California.

Red-shouldered hawks live and build their nests in deciduous and mixed woodlands but not necessarily deep forest. They like to stick near water sources, like river banks, lakes and swamps. If you live in a suburb with a wooded area near water, there may be a red-shouldered hawk living nearby. Red-shouldered hawks living in the Northeast and northern Midwest migrate south in winter.

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Call and Sounds

275877214 1 Jackie Elmore Bnb Bypc 2021Courtesy Jackie Elmore
Blue jays may mimic the sounds of red-shouldered hawks.

Red-shouldered hawks are one of the noisiest hawk species around, so learning their call is a great way to identify them. Their loud, shrill Kee-aah call is repeated and has an inflection that rises then falls. To compare, the red-tailed hawk’s call sounds more hoarse and piercing. (Blue jays are particularly good at imitating red-shouldered hawks. Their mimicry helps the jays scare away other birds competing for food as well as predators.)

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What Do Red-Shouldered Hawks Eat?

These carnivores wait and watch from perches, then swoop in to strike at the right opportunity. They hunt water-loving animals like frogs, crayfish and small fish, as well as small woodland animals like snakes, mice, voles and rabbits. Red-shouldered hawks are opportunistic feeders and have even been known to feed on carrion if other options aren’t available.

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Nests and Eggs

red shouldered hawkCourtesy Michelle Diehl
Red-shouldered hawk chicks in a nest

Mating season for red-shouldered hawks happens during the first six months of the year, particularly in March and April. As part of spring courtship, a male red-shouldered hawk will do dramatic, spiraling dives from high in the air, called a “sky dance.”

Both the male and female red-shouldered hawk help build the nest or, if they can, reuse the same nest from the previous year. Their cup-shaped stick nests are roughly two feet in diameter and built about 20 to 60 feet off the ground in the main fork of a tree trunk. Red-shouldered hawks only have one brood per season and usually lay two to five eggs.

Next, learn how to identify a Harris’s hawk.