Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized buteo, smaller than Red-tailed Hawk but slightly larger than Broad-winged Hawk. In the East, they are found in riparian or swampy woodlands. In the West, they are found in oak woodlands, riparian areas, and suburban areas with large trees. Red-shouldered Hawks are shy and secretive in the East, but they are quite tame in the West and in Florida. The Red-shouldered Hawk is uncommon to fairly common as a breeder throughout the eastern part of its range, but declining in certain areas. In the West, they are expanding north into Washington, when once only found in California and southern Oregon. There are four subspecies: Eastern (B. l. lineatus), California (B. l. elegans), Florida (B. l. alleni), and Texas (B. l. extimus), but plumage overlap exists between Eastern, Florida, Texas, so not all individuals are identifiable to subspecies.
Eastern birds breed across the Midwest, New England, and into the Canadian border region. Northern populations are migratory, wintering mainly below the Canadian border and in the Southeast. Elsewhere the Red-shouldered Hawk is mainly resident. It is common in peninsular Florida and California. They often perch on pole tops and on roadside wires. They hunt primarily for amphibians, reptiles, mice, and some birds. Often noisy, Red-shouldered Hawks are frequently heard before seen, especially on the breeding grounds. Their call is a loud, descending, slightly nasal, repeated "keeyar-keeyar-keeyar!" A softer "kak-kak-kak" is heard during breeding as well.
Perched, appears slimmer than Red-tailed Hawk, and more Cooper's Hawk-like, but with shorter tail and broader chest.
Have somewhat broad wings that are slightly squared at tips, and lack bulging secondaries of Red-tailed Hawk. Tail is long and slim when closed for a buteo.
When overhead, appear smaller headed than Broad-winged and Red-tailed.
Soaring or gliding, are steady, strong fliers.
In a soar, wings are held fairly flat but arch slightly forward.
In a glide, wings are held slightly bowed.
When flapping, wing beats are quick and stiff, similar to those of Broad-winged Hawks but somewhat "wristy" and fluid in comparison.
All Red-shouldereds have pale, translucent, comma-shaped markings across outer wing. Pale commas obvious from above and obvious from below when backlit, but inconspicuous in poor light. Juvenile has yellow to pale brown eye, adult has dark brown eye. Male and female similar, but Florida male often paler than female.
Adult is brilliant rufous underneath with faint white barring and fine dark streaking on body; appearing mostly orange. Above, adult is brownish with rufous "shoulder" patches, flight feathers (including tail) are boldly banded black & white. Eastern adult darker overall than other subspecies, California adult more vibrant in color overall. Florida adult pale-headed (especially males), and paler below, Texas adult very similar to Eastern.
Juvenile pale below with variable dark streaking, typically evenly dispersed across body. Tail is dark with narrow pale banding and wider sub-terminal band. Upperparts brown, with faint rufous "shoulder" patches much less distinct than adult. Eastern juvenile less heavily marked in general than other subspecies. California juvenile has dense barring below, rufous streaked breast, and adult-like flight feathers, especially tail. Juvenile Florida heavily streaked below with southern peninsular birds palest of all with whitish-gray head, pale back, and lightly marked underparts. Texas juvenile variable with some looking similar to Florida birds and others similar to Eastern.
Seen during migration in fair numbers at many eastern hawk watching sites, but at spring Great Lakes hawk watches, daily high counts peak in the high 100's (Braddock Bay and Derby Hill, NY).
Spring migration typically from mid-March through April. Fall migration occurs mainly from late September through November. In spring, adults move ~ one month earlier than juveniles; in fall juveniles move south 2-4 weeks earlier than adults.
In the West, migrants are seen along West Coast but Marin Headlands and Point Loma (September and October) are only reliable sites.
California subspecies appears to be expanding north and east with increasing records from Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico.
(Map from Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds. For dynamic distribution maps, visit the eBird website.)