Red-tailed Hawk vs Red-shouldered Hawk: Tips to ID Them

The red-tailed hawk and red-shouldered hawk are two fascinating raptor species found in North America. Both species belong to the Buteo family and share similar behaviors, but they also have notable differences which make them unique.

In this article, we will explore their distinctive features, including their physical characteristics, habitats, behaviors, and calls, to help you learn how to distinguish between these remarkable birds of prey.

Key Takeaways:

  • Red-tailed hawks prefer open habitats, while red-shouldered hawks are found in forests near water sources.
  • Red-tailed hawks have a larger wingspan, and both species have different plumage and markings.
  • Habitat, physical appearance, and calls are important factors in distinguishing between these two raptor species.

Red-Tailed Hawk vs Red-Shouldered Hawk

When comparing the Red-tailed Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk, you’ll notice several distinctive physical differences between them. These differences include size, shape, color, length, spotting, measurements, and color pattern, as well as anatomy and eyes.

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In terms of size, Red-tailed Hawks are larger than Red-shouldered Hawks. Their bodies are more robust, featuring a broader wingspan and a more barrel-shaped chest. While they don’t vary significantly in length, it’s crucial to note that the Red-tailed Hawk has a shorter yet wider tail than the Red-shouldered Hawk. As a result, female Red-tailed Hawks are among the largest raptors in North America, while Red-shouldered Hawks sit within the upper-middle size range ^(1^).

Body Shape

The two species also differ in their shape. Red-tailed Hawks typically have a bulkier build compared to Red-shouldered Hawks. The latter sports a more slender body and a longer tail that make them seem more streamlined.


When it comes to color patterns, both species exhibit variation across their ranges. However, they demonstrate distinct differences that can help you identify them. Red-tailed Hawks are well-known for their brick-red tails, while Red-shouldered Hawks often showcase a rufous-orange color, with their wings exhibiting barred patterns ^(2^).

Spotting these birds in different habitats may also help in distinguishing them. Red-tailed Hawks are generally found in open country landscapes, whereas Red-shouldered Hawks prefer forested areas, particularly near watercourses and swamps ^(3^).


Lastly, anatomical discrepancies, such as eye position and size, can provide subtle cues in their identification. Red-shouldered Hawks have larger, more rounded eyes that are positioned closer to the front of the head, while Red-tailed Hawks exhibit smaller and more proportionately sized eyes that sit farther back on their head.

Understanding these physical differences will enable you to distinguish between Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks, providing valuable insights into their unique characteristics and respective habitats.

Unique Behavioral Differences

When observing Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks, you might notice some distinct behavioral differences. These species have specific preferences for their habitats. While Red-tailed Hawks are more inclined towards open country, Red-shouldered Hawks prefer dwelling in forests, particularly near watercourses and swamps link.

Another aspect to consider when distinguishing these hawks is their calls. Red-tailed Hawk vocalizations primarily consist of a single note, “keeeeeaaa,” which may sound like a hoarse scream or screech, lasting for about 2-3 seconds link. On the other hand, Red-shouldered Hawks have a different and more complex call that typically consists of two notes.

Size is also a crucial factor in differentiating these hawks. Although their length might be similar, Red-tailed Hawks have a more extensive wingspan compared to Red-shouldered Hawks link. Additionally, female Red-tailed Hawks are among the largest raptors in North America, whereas Red-shouldered Hawks are considered upper middle-sized birds.

When it comes to their social behavior, both Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks are monogamous. They usually mate for life and defend their nesting territory against intruders during the breeding season.

In conclusion, you can identify Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks by examining their habitats, vocalizations, sizes, and social behaviors. However, always keep in mind that these are general distinctions and may not apply to every individual of these species. By understanding these unique behavioral differences, you can better appreciate the diversity of these magnificent birds.

Habitat Differences

When examining the habitats of Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks, you will notice some distinct differences between them. These differences affect not only their preferred environments but also their distribution and overall behavior.

Red-tailed Hawks are quite versatile and adaptable, making them a widespread species across North America. You can find these birds inhabiting various landscapes, such as grasslands, deserts, and open woodlands. They are more likely to thrive in open country, allowing them to soar freely while keeping a close eye on potential prey. Their distribution stretches from coast to coast in the United States and even extends to Mexico, Canada, and Alaska.

On the other hand, Red-shouldered Hawks have a more specific and limited habitat preference. They typically reside in forests, especially near watercourses and swamps. Deciduous woodlands, wetlands, and riverbanks are their ideal environments. These hawks have a narrower distribution range compared to their Red-tailed counterparts, mainly inhabiting the eastern part of the United States, with some populations found in Texas and along the West Coast.

While both species are native to North America and share certain habitats, their respective preferences play a significant role in their geographical distribution. It is important to consider these factors when observing and identifying these magnificent birds of prey in their natural environments.

Songs and Calls

When distinguishing between the Red-tailed Hawk and the Red-shouldered Hawk, it’s worth paying attention to their songs and calls, as they have some noticeable differences.

The call of a Red-tailed Hawk consists of a single, drawn-out note, often described as “keeeeeaaa.” This hoarse scream or screech lasts for about 2-3 seconds and is most frequently uttered while the bird soars in the sky. In contrast, the Red-shouldered Hawk produces a two-note call, adding a layer of complexity to its vocalization.

When you listen to a Red-tailed Hawk’s call, you can quickly identify this bird, as its distinctive sound sets it apart from other raptors. On the other hand, when a Red-shouldered Hawk is nearby, its distinctive two-note call will likely capture your attention and help you identify the bird with ease.

In addition to their primary calls, both hawks have various other vocalizations they use in different contexts. For instance, they may emit flight calls, alarm calls, and even softer sounds when communicating with their young or partners. As you become more familiar with these bird species and their different calls, you will find it easier to distinguish them by sound alone.

Remember that being able to recognize the songs and calls of these two majestic birds of prey can greatly enhance your birdwatching experience. As you continue to deepen your understanding of these raptors, you’ll better appreciate their roles in the ecosystem and be able to share your knowledge with fellow bird enthusiasts.

Diet and Feeding Differences

When it comes to the diet and feeding habits of Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks, there are some notable differences. In this section, you’ll learn about these differences and how they impact the hunting strategies of these fascinating birds of prey.

Red-tailed Hawks primarily feed on mammals, such as rodents, rabbits, and squirrels. Reptiles and smaller birds are also part of their diet, but to a lesser extent. These hawks prefer to hunt in more open environments, using their keen eyesight to spot prey from a distance before swooping down and capturing it with their powerful talons. The strong grip of their talons allows them to carry their prey back to a perch, where they can enjoy their meal in relative safety.

On the other hand, Red-shouldered Hawks have a more diverse diet that includes amphibians, reptiles, small mammals, insects, and even crustaceans. Their preferred hunting environments are forests, especially near water sources such as creeks and swamps. Since their prey is often hidden in the dense foliage or underwater, these hawks rely on their remarkable agility and stealth to ambush their targets. Their powerful, slender talons are built for grasping and holding slippery prey like fish and frogs.

Another factor that differentiates the feeding habits of Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks is the time of day they prefer to hunt. While both species are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day, Red-tailed Hawks are more likely to be seen hunting in the early morning and late afternoon. In contrast, Red-shouldered Hawks tend to be more active during midday, when their prey is also more likely to be out and about.

In summary, the diets and feeding behaviors of Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks differ in several ways. Red-tailed Hawks have a greater focus on mammals in their diet and are more often seen hunting in open environments. Red-shouldered Hawks, however, have a more diverse diet and prefer hunting in forests near water sources. These differences in diet and hunting strategies serve as adaptations to their respective habitats, allowing each species to thrive in their unique environments.


Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks are two distinct species of birds of prey that are often compared due to their similar appearances. They belong to the family Accipitridae, which also includes eagles and other large raptors. As members of the Buteo genus, both species possess broad wings and are adapted for soaring.

The scientific name for the Red-tailed Hawk is Buteo jamaicensis, while the Red-shouldered Hawk’s scientific name is Buteo lineatus. These hawks can be found in various regions throughout North America, with some subspecies being migratory in nature.

When it comes to identifying these birds, you’ll notice that adult Red-tailed Hawks often possess a distinct reddish tail. They also typically have a dark belly band and a larger overall size in comparison to their Red-shouldered counterparts. On the other hand, adult Red-shouldered Hawks usually boast a more prominent barring on their tails, along with translucent crescents on their wings’ tips.

In terms of plumage, both species display considerable variation depending on their age and subspecies. Juvenile Red-tailed Hawks tend to have a more mottled appearance, while juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks exhibit similar patterns to their adult counterparts but present a less vibrant coloration.

Regarding habitats, Red-tailed Hawks are usually found in more open environments, whereas Red-shouldered Hawks prefer to reside within forested areas, especially ones close to water sources like swamps and streams.

While these two species share some similarities, their distinct features and preferred habitats make it easier for you to identify and differentiate them from one another and other similar birds of prey like the Broad-winged Hawk.

Nesting and Breeding Differences

When it comes to the nesting and breeding differences between red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks, there are a few key distinctions to consider.

Red-tailed hawks prefer more open country spaces, while red-shouldered hawks are typically found in forests, particularly near watercourses and swamps. Due to these differing habitats, you will notice that their nesting sites also vary. Red-tailed hawks often build their nests on top of tall trees, cliffs, or even man-made structures like telephone poles. In contrast, red-shouldered hawks usually construct their nests in dense woodlands, closer to the trunk of the tree, and more towards the canopy.

When it comes to their breeding schedules, red-shouldered hawks usually mate earlier than red-tailed hawks. Red-shouldered hawks begin their mating season in late winter or early spring, while red-tailed hawks initiate the process a bit later in the spring.

The size of their clutches is also distinct. Red-shouldered hawks typically lay 3 to 4 eggs per clutch, whereas red-tailed hawks lay 1 to 5 eggs, with the average being around 3 eggs. Both species incubate their eggs for around a month, with the female doing the majority of incubation.

Moreover, their parenting behaviors show some differences. Red-shouldered hawks are known to be more cooperative when it comes to raising their young. Both parents participate in feeding and taking care of the chicks, although the female usually stays near the nest while the male hunts for food. Red-tailed hawks, on the other hand, primarily have the female caring for the nest and feeding the chicks while the male hunts.

In terms of life history, both species are relatively long-lived and can reach ages of 15-20 years or more in the wild. They exhibit monogamous mating behavior and often return to the same nest site year after year.

By understanding the nesting and breeding distinctions between these two species, you can better identify and observe their behaviors in their natural habitats.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key differences in appearance between red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks?

When it comes to distinguishing red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, there are some noticeable differences. For one, red-tailed hawks are typically larger with a greater wingspan, and female red-tailed hawks are among the largest raptors in North America. Meanwhile, red-shouldered hawks fall within the upper-middle size range for raptors. Additionally, red-shouldered hawks tend to have a more vivid appearance with more striking and unique patterns than red-tailed hawks.

How do their calls differ between red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks?

As you listen to the calls of these two hawk species, you’ll notice that there are some differences between them. Red-tailed hawks typically emit a high-pitched, raspy scream, while red-shouldered hawks have a more melodic and distinct whistle-like call. This contrast makes it easier to distinguish between the two species by their calls alone.

What is the difference in range and habitat for the two species?

Red-tailed hawks can be found from coast to coast in the United States, making them one of the most widespread and common hawk species in North America. On the other hand, red-shouldered hawks mainly inhabit the eastern part of the United States. As for the habitats, red-tailed hawks prefer more open country, while red-shouldered hawks are generally found in forested areas, especially near watercourses and swamps.

How do their hunting behaviors differ?

Although both red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks are skilled hunters, their hunting techniques may differ. Red-tailed hawks are more likely to hunt from a high perch and dive to capture their prey. In contrast, red-shouldered hawks have been known to hunt from lower perches or even on the wing, focusing on prey near water sources or in forested areas.

How do the juvenile appearances of both hawks vary?

Juveniles of both red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks have similarities in coloration, making it somewhat challenging to distinguish between the two species. However, juvenile red-tailed hawks tend to have more subdued coloration and less distinct markings compared to their adult counterparts. Whereas juvenile red-shouldered hawks typically have a more patterned appearance and a lighter coloring than adults, which helps to differentiate them from red-tailed hawks.

What challenges are faced in distinguishing them from Cooper’s hawks?

It can be particularly difficult to differentiate red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks from Cooper’s hawks as all three species share some similar features. Cooper’s hawks, like red-shouldered hawks, prefer forest habitats and have a comparable size and shape, while juvenile Cooper’s hawks have similar coloration to both species. However, the structure of the wings and tails can provide some visual cues. Cooper’s hawks have more rounded wings and a longer tail than both red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, making this a useful characteristic for identification.

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