Sept/Oct 2011For Wildlife Watchers: Red-shouldered Hawkby Rob Simbeck, photograph by Phillip Jones
Red-shouldered hawks are creatures that have great eyesight and broad, strong wings that give them great soaring ability.
The chickens at my house pretty much have it made. In exchange for eggs during their productive years, the hens get food and housing, free medical care and great retirement benefits. They've got a big yard to peck around in, fresh water twice a day, a fan in the summer and a heat lamp in the winter.
If there's a drawback to the lifestyle, it lies in their popularity with predators. It's true - everything likes chicken. Through the years, we've had foxes, raccoons, possums, skunks and dogs go after them, and it's taken a lot of trial and error to varmint-proof their coop.
When they're out in the yard, they rely on a built-in wariness that is perhaps most evident when it comes to hawks. Let them see one, or hear the tell-tale scream of a red-shouldered or the higher-pitched cry of a red-tailed, and they'll quickly skedaddle under a bush or cedar tree or back into the coop.
The taste hawks have developed for the occasional chicken has put them on the long list of creatures farmers don't want around. For centuries, "chicken hawks," a catch-all term for several species, have earned the enmity and the shotgun blasts of farmers.
Which is unfortunate, since red-shouldered hawks aid in pest control, helping to check populations of mice, among other small mammals. They are also more likely to go after easily obtained creatures like frogs, lizards, crayfish and grasshoppers than something as big as a chicken, and that preferred diet reflects their affinity for riparian terrain.
"A nice wetland with deciduous trees that borders on an open area where they can hunt would be ideal," says Jim Elliott, founder and executive director of the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, South Carolina.
Red-shouldered Hawk - Buteo lineatus (striped hawk)
Description: 16 to 22 inches, 40-inch wingspan. Brown head, black, white and gray wings, reddish breast and shoulders.
Range and Habitat: Woods, particularly near water. Throughout the eastern U.S.
Reproduction: Four eggs on average, young fledge at 5 to 6 weeks.
Viewing Tips: Red-shouldered hawks breed between April and July, and are known for conspicuous courtship displays that include steep dives and wide spirals performed while soaring. Listen for their calls, which are generally deeper than those of red-tailed hawks.
Far more than other hawks, they'll also take snakes, which Elliott calls "one of their favorite things to feed their young prior to and even after they fledge."
These are creatures with great eyesight and broad, strong wings that give them great soaring ability. Normally, though, they will watch patiently for prey from unobstructed perches.
"One thing that separates them from other raptors of that size," says Elliott, "is that you'll see the red-shouldered sitting on power lines, usually near a swale or ditch where they can find amphibians. They'll just drop down and get what they can, eating it there or taking it back to the perch."
Like the red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered has a nocturnal counterpart.
"A red-shouldered is to a barred owl what a red-tailed is to a great horned owl," says Elliott. "There's a similar diet preference, but one is nocturnal and one diurnal in what works out as a beautiful arrangement."
Found throughout the eastern United States and along a strip of the West Coast, the red-shouldered is a mid-sized hawk, ranging from sixteen to twenty-two inches in length, and with a wingspan of between thirty-eight and forty-two inches. Females are a little larger than males. These hawks are slim, with a long tail, and weigh only about a pound-and-a-half. The adult has a brown head, a red breast and a white belly with reddish bars. The tail is dark, with three or four narrow white stripes. The wings are a symphony of white, black and gray, with the underside a lighter version. The "red shoulder" is particularly visible when the hawk is perched - a time when another tell-tale field mark is evident.
"Perched," says Elliott with a laugh, "they have the kind of stoop-shouldered posture my mother would have corrected me for."
One key to telling them from the red-tailed in flight is a "window in the wings," a spot through which light can shine, in the red-shouldered. Another involves the breast; red-shouldered hawks typically have reddish or creamy-colored underparts. "If you see that white front," says Elliott, "that's a red-tailed."
These are monogamous birds whose courtship involves a "sky dance" that includes diving, soaring and circling flight as well as a good deal of calling.
"Their vocalizations are really loud and wonderful," says Elliott. "It sounds African, like the soundtrack to a jungle movie."
Red-shouldered hawks will start building or refurbishing a nest in late winter or early spring, spending a week or more constructing an eighteen-inch-wide bowl of sticks, twigs, leaves and bark in the crotch of a large tree and lining it with moss, lichens, fine twigs and bark. The female lays four dull white, brown-blotched eggs on average, and begins incubating with the first egg so that hatching takes place over several days. During the five weeks she is on the nest, the male brings food. The eggs and young are vulnerable to raccoons and great horned owls, as well as other hawks, and the females themselves are vulnerable while on the nest.
Once the young are hatched, both male and female bring them food. The young, helpfully enough, can project their waste over the top of the nest and onto the ground. They fledge at five to six weeks, although it takes another two or three weeks before they have any real facility at capturing their own food.
"Most of the red-shouldereds here [in South Carolina] are resident birds," says Elliott. "Some do move, but those may be first-year birds that aren't mature enough for a pair bond and haven't established a territory yet. They're generally looking for a safe and predictable food source."
Red-shouldereds form strong pair bonds and are thought to have a high degree of nest site fidelity.
"There are continuous territories, and even nests, documented for thirty or forty years," says Elliott.
These were once among the most populous hawks in the Southeast, but hunting and forest clearing diminished their numbers greatly. They have made somewhat of a comeback, but still face challenges.
"A lot of it is habitat alteration or loss throughout their range," says Elliott. "They're associated with wetlands and those kinds of low areas that offer the kind of prey they like, and many of those areas are being disturbed or eliminated."
The same is true for all birds of prey.
"Available habitat just won't sustain numbers like it used to," says Elliott. "At one time there were five hundred pairs of bald eagles in South Carolina, and that many could never be supported again. We're hoping that perhaps the decline in the number of hawks will level out and the population will reach a sustainable level."
It would indeed be a shame to lose more of these creatures, whose keen senses give them such a lofty perch atop their portion of the food chain.
- Rob Simbeck
Rob Simbeck is an award-winning freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee.