|     Most raptors are somberly colored
in various blends of brown, black, gray and white or off- white. An adult
red-shouldered hawk is a vivid exception. Mature (adult) red-shoulders
are brick-red on the chest, and the patches on the upperwing that give
the bird its common name are rusty-red. This bright rust color contrasts
with the flight feathers (the large feathers that make flight
possible) of the wing, which are boldly striped with black and white in
such a way that the feathers look checkered. The tail is black, with 3
or 4 narrow stripes. When the red-shoulder soars, the underwings continue
the two-toned look. The area closet to the bird's body is rusty-red, standing
out against the black-and-white flight feathers. A C-shaped band of white
appears toward the end of the outstretched wings, a field mark
( a marking that helps an observer identify an animal in the wild) that
sets the red-shouldered hawk apart from our other hawks.
These bright colors and contrasts are characteristic only of adult red-shoulders. The juvenile or immature (young) birds in their first year are much less vivid. They are variously streaked (on the chest) and striped (on the wings and tail) with brown and cream. This quiet coloration not only helps to camouflage the young birds, it also signals to adults that the wearer of this distinctive plumage is a youngster. Adults may allow young birds to hunt in their territory, something they would never permit an adult red-shoulder to do.
The red-shouldered hawk is a slender, medium-sized buteo (soaring hawk) with long legs and a long tail. While males and females are colored alike, the females are larger than the males (this is the case in almost every raptor species). Females have a wingspan of 40 to 42 inches, with an average weight of 1.4 pounds. The smaller males have a wingspan of 37 to 40 inches, with an average weight of 1.1 pounds.
The red-shoulder's breeding range neatly covers the eastern half of the U.S., with one isolated population in coastal California. The species' summer range extends into southeastern Canada as well. The northern birds migrate, but since the majority of the red-shoulder's breeding range lies south of New England, we don't see very many migrating through in the fall. In the spring, when many birds choose a different path back to their nesting grounds, some areas may record many red-shoulders. One well-known hawk-watching spot in central New York has logged as many as 500 of this species in one spring day. While the occasional red-shouldered hawk is seen wintering in New England, it is likely that these birds are migrants from the northern part of the species' range. New England's resident population has probably already migrated south, and the hawks may travel as far as Florida or even Mexico.
Red-shouldered hawks live in moist, mature deciduous forest, meaning they favor forests of large trees like maples, oaks and birches. The hawks don't live in the vast boreal (northern) forest, which is made up mostly of conifers like pines, spruces, firs and hemlocks. The boreal forest is too dry for this hawk's liking. Red-shoulders like to live near a water source, which supplies them with a variety of food. In fact, red-shoulders may have a more varied diet than any other North American raptor. Just about everything alive is on the menu, from insects, spiders, crustaceans and fish up to mammals the size of young rabbits and squirrels. Reptiles and amphibians are frequently eaten, with snakes an apparent favorite. Even turtles aren't scorned. Nestling birds are taken when available, but the red-shoulder doesn't typically hunt birds. Most of this hawk's hunting is done by sitting on a low, inconspicuous perch and simply watching and waiting for the movement of prey. This method is called still-hunting, and many birds of prey use it, a little or a lot. The red-shoulder still-hunts a lot.
This hawk is the diurnal (daytime) equivalent of the barred owl, hunting the same well- watered woods and valleys. Neither bird favors the higher, drier places, so in New England the red-shouldered hawk is absent from mountainous areas. It also avoids coastal terrain, so in Massachusetts it does not nest on Cape Cod or on islands like Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard. The stick nest is built in a mature (full-sized) tree like a white oak or red maple. Unlike the red-tailed hawk, the red-shoulder does not select a nest tree that is higher than the surrounding trees, to give a commanding view. In fact, it's fair to say that the red-shoulder's behavior is consistently less conspicuous than that of its larger relative the red-tailed hawk. Many writers use adjectives like "retiring" or "secretive" or even "shy" to describe the red-shouldered hawk. Certainly it would be accurate to call this bird "inconspicuous."
Before the American chestnut was almost wiped out by disease at the beginning of the 1900s, this was the red-shoulder's nest tree of choice. The nest is typically built against the tree's trunk. Male and female hawks may pull branches from conifers such as hemlocks and pines and place the branches on top of the nest. No one is sure why the birds do this. Some writers theorize that the evergreens help control insect pests. Others speculate that placing the evergreens in a visible spot is the hawks' way of announcing to other hawks that the nest is occupied. No one (except the hawks) has a clue as to why red-shoulders sometimes decorate their nests with such unlikely objects as the nests of tent caterpillars or Northern orioles.
The mated pair of red-shouldered hawks may reuse last year's nest. Like other hawk species, red-shoulders are faithful to their nesting area, returning to it every spring. There are several recorded cases of generation after generation of red-shoulders continuously occupying a territory for more than 40 years. The nesting territory either includes or is placed near a source of water. In Massachusetts this hawk often nests near beaver ponds.
In early April the female lays 2 or 3 eggs. She will incubate them for 23 to 28 days, and right up to the third week of incubation she is highly sensitive to disturbance. If an inquisitive human gets too close to the nest tree, the female may abandon the nest. As the time for hatching approaches and the female can hear her babies move within their eggshells, she will sit tight through a disturbance. But there may be consequences the following year - she and her mate may choose a different nest tree.
By the end of June the young are on the wing. While the brood is still in the nest, red-shoulders are quite vocal. A mated pair is also vocal early in the spring, when they reestablish their pair bond by courting. The characteristic cry is almost musical, which is why one local name for this bird is "singing hawk." The call is described by one writer as "clear and pure," like a blue jay's call but without the jay's harshness. It might be approximated as kee-yeeaah, and it sounds unhurried, as though the bird has plenty of time to chat. The red-tailed hawk's scream, by contrast, is harsh and explosive, as though it were being forced out in a rush by an impatient bird.
Although the red-shouldered hawk is found in the Northeast, the species is most abundant in the South, where cypress swamps, river bottoms and kettleholes offer plentiful hunting. In these places the hawk may scout for food on foot, its plumage patterns blending it perfectly into its surroundings. Southern birds are pale, much less vivid than northern red-shoulders. However, there is one exception to this rule. California is home to an isolated population of red-shouldered hawks, and these birds are so brightly colored they are known as "red-bellied hawks" for their vivid rusty-red chests. This population has learned to live alongside people, and has been found nesting in groves of exotic trees such as eucalyptus. In fact, this adaptable subspecies is expanding its range northward into Oregon and southward into Baja California.
While the red-shouldered hawk's individual nesting and hunting territory may be small, this species seems to require the buffer zone of large, undisturbed areas of mature forest. As development proceeds apace in the Northeast, and forests are fragmented by houses and malls, the red-shoulder may start to disappear. At the present time it is considered uncommon over its breeding range. One reason may be its reliance on reptiles and amphibians for food. The Northeast is seeing its population of these animals drop alarmingly, probably because of habitat destruction and pesticide use. However, the red-shoulder is not a conspicuous bird. Unlike the red-tailed hawk, which is so often to be seen still-hunting by the side of a highway, or even perched on a streetlight, the red-shouldered hawk prefers to hunt in less exposed places. It may be that we have more of this beautiful species than we realize.