The red-shouldered hawk is a medium-sized raptor (also known as a bird of prey), with a small head, hooked bill, and reddish/rust colored “shoulders,” chest, and belly. Juvenile red-shouldered hawks lack the reddish color on the chest and belly and instead exhibit almost white feathers with a brown spot-like pattern. Adult red-shouldered hawks in Florida are more pale than those in other parts of the country with a gray head and lighter barring on the chest.
Red-shouldered hawks can be found soaring in circles at high altitude or gliding from tree to tree in forests or neighborhoods. When foraging, or hunting for food, they perch with their head tilted downward, looking for prey. Their primary diet consists of small mammals, lizards, snakes and amphibians. Red-shouldered hawks occasionally eat crawfish and other birds.
These hawks breed in late winter through spring (January-May), building nests in trees near suitable foraging habitat such as pastures, roadsides and lawns. Nests are not very large and are usually constructed in the fork of trees where tree limbs meet under the leaf canopy. If a breeding pair successfully raises young at the nest site, they will return to that same site year after year.
Breeding behavior includes the male soaring and calling while he dives towards the female before landing on her to mate. Once she lays 2 to 5 eggs, both parents incubate them. Eggs hatch in about a month. Both parents feed the hatchlings, with each parent leaving the nest to hunt short distances and returning with food. Chicks mature quickly, within about a month and a half, before making their final flight off the nest to establish their own territories as fledglings.
Red-shouldered hawks have a loud, piercing call, and often are heard before they are seen. They can be especially vocal during mating season or if they feel their young are threatened.
Red-shouldered hawks prefer pine, oak and cypress forests near water. They also perch in individual trees and fence posts in neighborhoods and power line easements along roadways. Partially open tree canopies make hunting easier due to less cover for prey.
Red-shouldered hawks are year-round residents in Florida. They are one of the most commonly seen hawks throughout the state.
Conflicts with red-shouldered hawks
Most people can coexist with red-shouldered hawks with no issues, and conflicts with red-shouldered hawks are not common. If conflicts do arise, it’s typically around nesting season.
During the breeding season these hawks are protective of their mate, nest, eggs and chicks. They may perceive people and pets as potential threats, and may swoop toward and dive at perceived threats from as far as 150 feet away from their nest. If you are having conflicts with hawks, the following steps can be taken.
- Avoid areas near the nest, if possible. If you must venture closely to an active nest, carry an open umbrella, or wear a hard hat. Place signs in pedestrian areas to alert others to the presence of a nest and protective hawk parents.
- Temporarily erect a shade structure to obstruct the birds’ view of people and pets.
- An air horn may effectively deter birds that start to dive, but it is important to only use this device if a hawk is actively diving at you (and not just perched in a tree or nest).
- During times outside of breeding season, trim branches near your home’s entrances and outdoor living spaces to minimize chances of hawks perching in those areas in the future.
- Eliminate food sources that may attract prey such as rodents into your yard. Unsecured garbage, fallen bird seed and pet food are common household attractants that may entice prey species and other wildlife onto your property.
- Secure livestock, particularly smaller stock such as chickens and rabbits, in a covered and fenced structure.
FWC biologists can help with hawk conflicts. Call your local FWC regional office for more information.
What actions require a permit?
Red-shouldered hawks and their active nests – those with eggs or chicks – are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) and under Florida law. No intentional or unintentional take of these birds, their eggs, nests or young is permitted without proper authorization. For an active nest removal permit you must apply for a USFWS MBTA permit. Further information on the Federal Migratory Bird Depredation Permit can be found on the USFWS website:
Contact the USDA Wildlife Services (866-487-3297) if you do not have access to the internet or have permit questions.
- Florida Bird Sounds (Florida Museum of Natural History)
- Florida Breeding Bird Atlas (FWC)
- Florida BBA – Red-shouldered Hawk
- Partners in Flight
- Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- Migratory Bird Program (USFWS)
- Birds of Conservation Concern (USFWS)
- State of the Birds Report (North American Bird Conservation Initiative)
- Florida Natural Area Inventory (FNAI)