Red-shouldered hawks are medium-sized raptors with sharp eyes, broad strong wings and long legs. Fully grown, they reach a length of 17 to 24 inches (43 to 61 cm), with a 36- to 40-inch (91 to 101 cm) wingspan. Females are slightly larger than males. Distinguishing characteristics include reddish shoulders, a rust-colored breast with white and dark streaks, long, narrow and blackish-brown wings with black and white stripes on the undersides, long tails with narrow black and white bands and white tips, and a translucent "window" patch on each wing at the base of their primary feathers.
Red-shouldered hawks are effective hunters, helping to maintain a balance of predators and prey in woodland and grassland areas. Their diet includes rabbits, rodents, and other small mammals, as well as small birds, snakes, lizards, frogs, fish, insects, and crayfish. Nest-raiding birds, snakes, mammals, and humans prey on red-shouldered hawks.
Mating season is from late January to June, peaking in March and early April. Nests are cup-shaped and made of sticks, lined with dried leaves, strips of bark, Spanish moss, lichens, feathers and down; generally built between 20 and 60 feet (6 to 18 m) above ground. Females lay two or three (occasionally one to six), white eggs marked with brown or yellowish-brown blotches. Chicks hatch after 28 to 33 days. Red-shouldered hawks are altricial (born blind and helpless), but leave the nest after 39 to 45 days. One banded specimen lived almost 20 years.
Red-shouldered hawks are diurnal (active during the day) and rest at night. They watch for prey from low perches 6 to 15 feet (2 to 4.5 m) above the ground or by soaring above fields and meadows near wooded areas. Perch sites are generally found in trees, but may also include utility poles, fence posts and hay bales. Once prey is spotted, the hawks drop directly onto it from above. The red-shouldered hawk hunts by sight and sound - listening for the movements of small prey in the leaf litter. The hawk's eyes are situated to look forward. They have binocular vision, which helps them measure depth and distance - and makes the bird a precise hunter.
Nesting and hunting territories are usually 0.25 to 1 mile (0.4 to 1.61 km) in size. The birds aggressively defend these areas during the spring when eggs are in the nest. The females incubate the eggs while the males hunt for them. Once the eggs have hatched, both parents hunt. The females are larger and hunt slower prey. The males are smaller and more agile, hunting smaller and faster prey. Because of their wing structures, red-shouldered hawks can soar for extended periods without tiring.
Red-shouldered hawks prefer moist woodlands, such a bottomland hardwood forests or deciduous or mixed forests bordering lakes, streams or other wetlands.
Red-shouldered hawks can be found in southeastern Canada and eastern United States south to central Mexico. Some are permanent residents in the eastern third of Texas.
Their call is a repeated kee-yeer. Red-shouldered and other hawks are often used to as the cry of bald eagles in the movies and on television because their calls are more distinctive than the eagle's call. Federal law protects all hawks and other birds of prey, which include eagles, osprey, falcons, owls and vultures. It is illegal to harm or kill them or to own any parts of their bodies, such as talons (claws), feathers or nests. Nonetheless, humans often target hawks as potential predators of chickens and other domestic fowl.
Before its use was outlawed in the United States, red-shouldered hawks and other raptors suffered from exposure to DDT, a pesticide. The DDT would cause their eggs to have thin, breakable shells, reducing their ability to reproduce. Accidental encounters with power lines and automobiles also take a toll on hawks. In spite of these dangers, habitat loss remains the biggest threat to red-shouldered hawks.