Red-shouldered Hawks in Their Home-range

A familiar bird provided the opportunity to learn about home-range, essentially the quality of being close enough together while staying far enough apart.

October 16-17, 2022 ~ I love seeing raptors. I’m tickled every time I see a Red-tailed Hawk, even though they are the most common hawk in the United States, and are literally everywhere. But, on each of these two days I was delighted to see Red-shouldered Hawks, Buteo lineatus, slightly smaller than the Red-tailed, and only half as common.

Red-shouldered Hawk range map, courtesy of All About Birds

A large portion of the population are year-round residents, and the northern-most birds that migrate are short-distance travelers, easing just far enough south to avoid the really cold winters. Red-shouldered Hawks are here along the upper Texas Gulf Coast all year.

The little “?” shown by All About Birds in the blue area indicates that Red-shouldered Hawks are occasionally seen in the blue region. The eBird observations map, also shown on All About Birds, confirms that the sightings in Mexico are very sparse.

Red-shouldered Hawk feathering the flaps for her landing
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Sunday, October 16th was a hot and sticky day. As a group of us were walking around the shrinking Elm Lake at Brazos Bend State Park (BBSP), we looked across the water to see first a single Red-shouldered Hawk land high in a dead tree, and then a second hawk join him.

Balance is tricky on these long rickety spars
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The Red-shouldered Hawk has a generally russet appearance with dark brown-and-white checked wings and black-and-white striped tail. Their chest and belly are rufous with a subtle horizontal striped pattern. Their shoulders have the deep russet coloring of their back, though sometimes the shoulder is hidden by fluffed neck feathers.

There are 5 sub-species in the US… or maybe 4, or maybe only 3, depending upon who you ask. The most pronounced differences are between the elegans of California which is the most richly colored with dark russet head, the extimus of Florida which is the palest, with a mostly gray head, and the ones we saw, the lineatus, or alleni, or texanus. To make identification even more challenging, Red-shouldered hawks have hybridized with Gray Hawks (Buteo plagiatus), Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) and Common Black Hawks (Buteogallus anthracinus), so may show mixed characteristics of each. Humph. Moving on.

Male (above) and female (below) rest in the bright sun
1/2500 sec. f/5.6 ISO 125
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The male and female have the same plumage, but as with most raptors, the female is about 20% larger than the male. So, I believe that the male is topmost on the branch, and the slightly heavier female is perched below. Their weight differences maximize their hunting success: the females being slower and stronger take the larger prey, while the males, more agile and faster take the smaller speedier prey.

Cool, calm and collected Red-shouldered Hawk
1/1000 sec. f/5.6 ISO 3200
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

The next day, Monday the 17th, presented us with the first mild-temperature day in months. I celebrated the arrival of this little “cool front” by going back to BBSP, this time to walk around 40-acre Lake. The sky was overcast, and there was a nice breeze. Along the northeastern edge of the lake, I spotted this lovely Red-shouldered Hawk. Where the pair on Sunday had been roughly 350 feet away, this hawk was less than 50 feet away. He (or she) was watchful and calm, peering slowly left and right, but completely tolerant of my presence and the persistent clicking of my camera.

Red-shouldered Hawk waking up grumpy in the August heat
1/2500 sec. f/6.3 ISO 1250
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I recalled surprising a Red-shouldered Hawk on Hoot’s Hollow Trail as I walked underneath his branch in August. He had been just inside the edge of the forest along the west end of 40-acre Lake, only a few hundred feet from this new sighting, but I didn’t yet connect the dots.

Checking the undergrowth for prey
1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 2000
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

Red-shouldered Hawks live at the intersection of two biomes, in deciduous or open conifer forests with standing water at the edge of riparian (river-side or lake-side) swamps and meadows. That perfectly describes the land in the park, and the locations where I saw these hawks. The spreading live oaks, pecans and hawthorns standing in or near the low flat swamps covered with only an inch or two of water provide the perfect habitat in which to hunt small mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Red-shouldered Hawks also sometimes take birds such as doves. And All About Birds notes that they sometimes team up with their natural enemy, the American Crow (which will eat eggs, and is common in BBSP), to drive away larger predators such as the Great Horned Owl.

Many raptors establish a “home-range” in which most of their hunting takes place. Their home-range is a very-roughly sketched circle centered on their nest. Detailed studies of Red-shouldered Hawks in Georgia, Wyoming, Wisconsin, New Jersey and California have established that their home-range is typically approximately 1.2km across, with at least 2km between nests, and that their range expands in the fall after raising their families, likely because their intensive hunting during spring and summer has depleted prey population in their original patch. For example, this is the map from a study conducted in Georgia in spring and summer 1997.

So… was this one of the same birds I had seen the day before?

Sneak attack!
1/800 sec. f/5.6 ISO 1600
Nikon D850 with Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR

I know, another butt-shot. I came within a split second of deleting this image. But then I saw what the hawk had surely known all along. His mate had been positioned behind me, and with one ground-hugging stealthy swoop, flashed past just as I took this photo. While taking the shot, I had seen a momentary smudge, but didn’t realize what I’d captured until I downloaded and processed my photos.  At my slower rate of 3 frames per second, only one frame showed the silent fly-by.

Now the penny dropped. On two consecutive days, I had seen a pair of Red-shouldered Hawks, hunting together. The locations where I found them were roughly 2km apart, and the habitat surrounding both lakes is ideal for their year-round needs.

Sighting locations, shown by stars, 2km apart. Circles note 1.2km areas, but are misleading, since the home-ranges should be centered on the nest site, not the sighting locations. But they serve to give a rough estimate of the possible breeding-season home-ranges of two Red-shouldered Hawk pairs.

I suspect that I saw two pair of Red-shouldered Hawks on these two days, their home-ranges centered in the forests near the opposite sides of 40-acre Lake and Elm Lake, putting the nests substantially more than 2km apart. The pair at Elm Lake seemed more intensely colored (even taking into account the bright sunlight), while the pair at 40-acre Lake had slightly more muted colors. Both pair were seen out in the open, near the edges of mature mixed oak and deciduous hardwood forests; the forest edges would be perfect nest locations. I think it is somewhat less likely that I saw the same pair both days, since that would mean one pair was ranging quite a bit more than 2km from their nest site. But… it could be!

In either case, their home-range has expanded after hopefully successfully raising a family on the park’s plentiful squirrels, mice, toads and frogs, large insects, crawfish… and snakes. Noms!

And, now I can count at least one pair of Red-shouldered Hawks among my friendly acquaintances at Brazos Bend State Park, a park I’m happy to include in my own home-range.

Author: Sam.Rappen

Retired from a major US manufacturer after 36 years of exciting work. Avid amateur bird watcher and photographer, and occasional blogger.

22 thoughts on “Red-shouldered Hawks in Their Home-range”

  1. Excellent write-up Sam. Was not aware of the subspecies ..much less the inconsistencies there. We have at least one red-shouldered that lives in the state park down the road from us – every one in a while during the summer months it will come by and check out our feeders for the “catch of the day” Closer to you, I found one at Quinta Mazatlan we were down there this year. Heading to Brazos Bend in January, eager to see what’s hanging out there. Thanks for the background and wonderful shots (although NOT going to show Linda your shot with the snake no way ha.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Heh – that was Linda Murdock’s shot of the Red-shouldered with the snake, not mine. I have been jealous of her observations that day ever since I first read her post. Glad you will be coming to Texas for a visit, I’ll tell all the birds to stick around 🙂


      1. I noticed that Linda took that shot right after I submitted the comment – please tell the birds to stick around, especially the Anis – will be the FOURTH consecutive year I’ve been after them without success.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved the hawk photos. We have hawks hanging around the area, but usually see them perched on highway lights checking out the nearby fields and ditches for their next snack. I also liked the swoop and butt shot; never know what you’ll find after a photo download.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s like finding buried treasure! A friend of mine said I needed to practice my situational awareness – too often, I’m surprised by flushing birds very close to my location (and I hate to think of the snakes and alligators that I’ve been unaware of). Thanks for commenting, Brad!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. What a thoroughly enjoyable post!

    Outstanding photographs (love that fly-by!) and absorbing information. The Red-shouldered Hawk is the most common raptor in our area. Most trails we start down will have one of these beauties scream a warning to the residents that suspicious characters are here! We have a Blue Jay at the house which has learned to perfectly imitate the call of the hawk. Once the birds scramble out of the feeders for cover, Mrs. Jay calmly flies in and leisurely enjoys sunflower seeds for as long as she wants!

    Enjoy the weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear these colorful and interesting birds are prevalent in your area – the wet walks that you and Gini take go through some prime Red-shouldered Hawk habitat.

      Mrs. Jay is quite enterprising! Here, I would suspect our Mockingbirds of the same kind of chicanery, but haven’t seen (or heard) it yet.

      Speaking of Mockingbirds, we ran the lawn sprinklers the other day, and rain has been absent for so long that we wound up with a yard full of Mockingbirds bathing in the sprinklers! We are finally getting some rain today; that will lend a freshness to the landscape for sure. I’ll have to make time to get out and celebrate it.

      Thanks for joining me here in the interwebs, Wally!


  4. I grinned when I realized the shot of the hawk’s ‘fly-by’ probably was related to your comments on my Osprey post about finding after-the-fact details in photos. It’s a wonderful image. I also enjoyed being able to make my way through such a detailed and informative discussion in the context of a place I know; the addition of the BBSP map was a terrific touch.

    Now, I need to stop and pay some attention to the hawk that’s perched in the same spot on the same wire (across from Blackburn Marine, on FM2094 in League City) for four years. I’ve always thought it was the same hawk, and that’s its territory — but I have no idea what kind of hawk it is.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. So glad you let me know – yours was one of three comments waiting in moderation! I know they’ll land in there if they contain links, and one contained a word that might have been questionable in another context. Automation only gets you so far :-/

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I was thinking of your post. Finding surprising details is a common occurrence for me… my eyesight is not so pretty good, as they say, and I tend to supplement what I see in the field with photos that I can review up close on the computer.

      I’ll try to remember to check out your League City hawk – finding a new friend is always a joy!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad you didn’t discard the butt-shot with fly-by-butt-shot… it is a perfect demonstration of protective coloration in action. The bird in flight is easily overlooked if all you do is glance; even though it is right there, using up space in the frame.
    Those are impressively colorful hawks- really pretty! And apparently very comfortable with sharing territory with humans. So cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I was so taken by that sneak attack photo, it took my breath away. And once I’d thought about it, I realized that I’ve often seen hawks in the distance at that spot, flying very low, and vanishing into the low bushes. Perhaps cruising low is a hunting style that works very well in an open marshy area, where the low grasses won’t conceal an oncoming hawk at altitude. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Linda B!


  6. Great images and info! I agree with you that they were probably two different pair. And I suspect the park has ample resources to support several pair, don’t you? They may consider the lakes “open” to all and defend the land areas around them. We did see a beautiful pair sharing a snake in the dead oak at the 40-acre parking lot back in 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Linda M – I’ve always loved that post you did on the hawks with the snake, and in my draft, I had copied the link to that post for inclusion in mine. Forgot to actually make it a link in the published version, so I’ve fixed that. Once I looked at the satellite view of the park, I agree with you that the park could support several pair. Now that I understand home-range a bit better, I’ll be on the lookout for more. And, who knows, in the spring I might find one of their nests! Thanks for your comments, and your prompt to update my post!!


  7. Truly enjoyed the photos and as always I enjoy the information you share along with the photos. I want to extend to you a special “thank you” to you for helping me with a project of mine, so “THANK YOU!” for helping.

    Liked by 2 people

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