Red-shouldered Hawks

Red-shouldered Hawk Life

There are few birds more fun to watch, really watch, not just identify, than hawks. They are able to control their flight destinies even in high wind; they manage to circle and dive against strong air currents. Hawks make a trip through California grasslands exciting. From a car, the land can seem featureless, but looking out for hawks regally perched on posts or wires passes the time enjoyably. When hawks are sitting, they are surveying for prey, resting, or preparing to eat.

Red-shouldered hawks live in dense forests, open forests, forest edges, and freshwater marshes and swamps. They prefer to have a water source nearby. They like to perch at low to mid-levels.

These hawks eat more reptiles as a percentage of their diet than any North American hawk.

They make nests of the usual sticks and leaves but softened with lichen and moss. The hawks add coniferous needles when the eggs are laid (is this some type of decoration, I wonder humorously?). The nests are platform-shaped, and the hawks build them in either decidous or coniferous trees. They usually prefer to build them near the trunk of a tree, perhaps because that seems safer.

Locating Red-shouldered Hawks

Ironically, although this website often features wildlife emblematic of California, the red-shouldered hawk is not the dominant hawk in California (in fact, it is more associated with the Eastern United States). Instead, the red-tailed hawk is dominant in California. Every year when we visit the Central Coast, we see the hawk photographed above. I had always assumed it was a really odd-looking red-tailed hawk, until finally I thought I should look it up in my guidebook. Red-shouldered hawks always remain in the same territory, so that explained why we could hear its poignant cries of "kee-ah" on foggy mornings year after year on our visits.

Interestingly, the hawk photographed above lives within view of the ocean, apparently not the traditional habitat of this hawk. Perhaps there is freshwater nearby that I have not seen. Less than a mile away, there is a small marsh. In further research, I have found that especially in coastal California, this hawk is expanding its range from heavily-forested areas to small patches of trees, even clumps of eucalyptus in populated areas. However, two factors are threats to its success: 1) its preference to remain in the same place year after year and 2) its competition with the red-tailed hawk which nests earlier in the year and grabs prime nesting spots first.


The Chumash Native Americans of coastal California often used red-tailed hawk and even red-shouldered hawk feathers in their ceremonial clothing. Chumash names for birds often mimicked the sounds birds made. One Chumash individual described the name for red-shouldered hawk as "canta woy woy woy, canta muy triste," which I translate with my high-school Spanish as "he sings woy, woy, woy, he sings very sadly." For more see this fascinating site about the Chumash.

For me, the red-shouldered hawk symbolizes how much more I can grow to love a place just by observing it closely and researching what I find. The first year I went to the beach and heard the resident red-shouldered hawk, I thought it was a lonely, poignant sound. The next year I saw the hawk, but could not identify it. The third year, I discovered its true name and began reading about it. Now I am quite excited to return and visit with the hawk again in light of this new knowledge.