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Red-shouldered Hawk

Often seen soaring high above or perched in some lofty and conspicuous place, the red-houldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) is one of the most common birds of prey in Mississippi. The screaming two-note “key-yer” or “key-yar” call of the red-shouldered hawk is familiar to many, and is often mimicked by blue jays to reduce competition for food.

The “red” shoulder is actually a rufous or rusty-reddish color. This hue is apparent in streaks and edges all over the body but is most prevalent on the lesser wing coverts, or “shoulders.” The adult is blackish-brown above, with extensive light and dark checkering. The tail is dark with 3 to 5 white bars. From beneath, the plumage is a fairly uniform pale rusty or buff color with some darker streaking evident.

The overall length of these hawks ranges from 17 to 24 inches, with wingspans of 37 to 44 inches. Red-shoulders may weigh up to 3 pounds but average closer to 2 pounds, with the females being larger than the males.

Red-shouldered hawks are found from Canada south through Mexico. Favored habitat of the red-shoulder consists mainly of wetter areas such as swamps, river bottoms and riverine forests but also includes the borders of such areas as well as open pine and hardwood forests.

Breeding and nesting activities of red-shoulders nearly always occur near water. The hawks have an elaborate courtship ritual in which 2 to 4 birds may soar together, rising up to 2,000 feet, then calling and descending before diving again to their original perch. This ritual is important as red-shoulders are monogamous and mate for life.

Both male and female share equally in all the responsibilities of rearing a new generation. A nest of sticks and twigs, inner bark strips, dry leaves, fresh green material, feathers and down is built. The nest is usually constructed in the crotch of a tree near the main trunk, 20 to 60 feet high. The mated pair is highly territorial as the nest may be used for many years.

One annual clutch of 2 to 5 eggs, usually bluish-white with brown specks, is incubated by both the male and female for 27 to 28 days. The chicks are blind, downy and helpless when hatched but are fed and cared for by both parents. The young hawks leave the nest when fledged approximately 45 days later, and will resemble their parents when they assume adult plumage by 18 months of age.

The red-shouldered hawk is a skilled hunter, locating its prey with keen eyesight while soaring or from a high perch in open wooded areas, swamps and forest edges. Its diet includes mice, gophers, moles, shrews, chipmunks, muskrats, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, skunks, small to medium birds, snakes, toads, frogs and large insects. As with most predators, hawk numbers generally increase as their prey becomes more plentiful.

The red-shoulder's hunting prowess has earned the bird several misnomers including “Hen Hawk” and “Chicken Hawk,” and undeserved persecution by ill-informed individuals as a result. Mistakenly shot as a killer of poultry and game, red-shoulders are possibly the most useful mouse and rodent destroyer of all hawks. In food habit studies where approximately 665 stomachs were examined, only 10 contained any evidence of poultry or game. The vast majority were found to contain mice and other small ground mammals.

Protected by law, it is illegal to harm a red-shouldered hawk in any way. The value of this magnificent bird should be obvious. In harming it we harm ourselves.

This article was written by Brian Ballinger, a Wildlife/Wetlands Biologist with Wildlife Mississippi.