Juvenile Red-Shouldered Hawks (Identification Guide with Pictures)

The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is a beautiful American hawk of forests and woodland habitats, usually near water. They are resident and partial migrants across much of the eastern half of the United States, with a second isolated population that is limited to the West Coast from Baja California to Oregon.

Juvenile plumage birds look quite different from their parents, so how do you identify a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk?

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks in their first plumage are brown above and pale whitish below. The underside is most heavily spotted around the throat and chest, becoming uniform whitish under the tail. These birds develop their adult plumage after about a year and a half, so you could see juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks at any time of year.

The juveniles leave their nest after 5 or 6 weeks, although they remain dependent on their parents for many weeks while learning to hunt for a wide variety of small animals.

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks are most similar in appearance to Broad-Winged and Red-Tailed Hawks, although differences in size, shape, and markings can be used to differentiate between these common American hawks.

Read along to learn more about the juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. This guide will teach you more about their biology, and help you take some of the guesswork out of identifying young American hawks.

Close up of a perched juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

Close up of a perched juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

What do juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks look like?

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks in their first plumage look very different from birds in their definitive (adult) plumage. The plumage of the upper parts is colored in various shades of brown, often with lighter edges. The underparts are much lighter, with dark spots on the throat and chest, and pure white below the tail. The legs and the base of the bill are yellow, and the iris is gray-brown.

When flying juveniles are viewed from below, the wings are pale with fine darker barring and spotting. They have brown wing tips, unlike the adults which have contrasting black and white flight feathers.

Their tail also differs in that it is narrowly barred in brown and white, unlike the adults which have broad black bars, interspaced in white.

Adults are distinctive when seen in flight. The rich reddish body and underwing covert feathers contrast strongly with much paler flight feathers and black and white tail and wing tips.

Immature birds look very similar to adults once they have developed their reddish plumage. They can be identified by the persistent vertical streaking on the throat and chest that fades to horizontal barring in adults.

A perched juvenile Red-shouldered hawk eating a worm

A perched juvenile Red-shouldered hawk eating a worm

How big are juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks?

Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized hawks. They are smaller than the Red-Tailed Hawk but larger than the similar Broad-Winged Hawk.

Red-Shouldered Hawk size

  • Length: 17 to 24 inches (43 - 61 cm)
  • Weight: 17 to 27 ounces (475 - 775 g)
  • Wingspan: 3 - 3.5 feet (0.9 - 1.1m)

The juveniles reach adult weight by the time they start leaving the nest. This is typically in their 5th or 6th week after hatching.

Young Red-shouldered Hawk chick just fledged the nest

Young Red-shouldered Hawk chick just fledged the nest

What do juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks eat?

The juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk diet is varied and includes various small mammals, reptiles, frogs, birds, insects, and crustaceans. Small mammals are an important component of the diet that their parents provide while they are in the nest, although many different types of prey are brought.

Juveniles can be fed by their parents for many weeks after leaving the nest. During this time, the young birds are learning to capture the same types of prey that the adult birds feed on.

Red-shouldered Hawk juvenile perched on a post

Red-shouldered Hawk juvenile perched on a post

How long does Red-Shouldered Hawk juvenile plumage last?

In total, young Red-shouldered Hawks will keep their juvenile plumage for about 18 months.

Red-shouldered Hawks begin to grow their juvenile plumage at about 2 weeks old. The juvenile plumage is mostly complete by the time the young birds leave the nest, although the tail will not yet have reached its full length.

Fledgling birds may also have visible down feathers on their heads and the undersides of their wings at the time when they first leave the nest.

How long do juvenile Red-Shouldered Hawks stay with their parents?

Red-shouldered Hawk nesting lasts about 6 weeks from the time the eggs hatch to when the young birds leave the nest. By the time they leave the nest, they are roughly the size of their parents. It can take a further 6 to 10 weeks for juveniles to become independent.

A recently fledged Red-shouldered Hawk chick perched on a branch

A recently fledged Red-shouldered Hawk chick perched on a branch

Do Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawks migrate?

Red-shouldered Hawks are partial migrants. The populations on the West Coast and in the southeast tend to be resident whereas the northeastern birds do fly south for the winter. Juveniles from migratory populations have been known to depart as early as September while most adults begin migrating in October.

How do you tell the difference between a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk and a Red-shouldered Hawk?

The juvenile Red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) can be seen in virtually all the same areas as the Red-shouldered Hawk and the two species can appear quite similar. Read on to learn how to tell these two common North American hawks apart in the field.

Size

Size is one of the most obvious differences between Red-shouldered and Red-tailed hawks. Red-tailed hawks are significantly larger, although it may be difficult to tell when they are seen separately. Red-Shouldered hawks have a similar body length to their larger relatives, although they weigh about half as much and have a much smaller wingspan.

Flight

Red-tailed hawks spend more time in soaring flight than their smaller forest relatives. Red-shouldered hawks tend to flap their wings more frequently in comparison.

Wings

The wings of these two hawks differ not only in size but also in shape and markings. Red-shouldered hawks have a narrow translucent patch near the end of each wing, just before the start of the primary feathers. This is most visible when the birds are seen in flight against a bright sky.

Red-tailed hawks have a much larger translucent patch towards the ends of their wings, but the major difference is that these large hawks have a dark patch of plumage known as a patagial mark that can be seen on the leading edge of their underwings.

Belly

Red-Tailed hawks have a prominent band of darker plumage across their belly. This is absent in the juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk, although they do have dark spotting or streaking on the chest and throat.

Tail

The Red-shouldered Hawk has a particularly long tail for a Buteo hawk. The red-tailed hawk does not have a red tail when young, but its tail is shorter and broader than that of the Red-shouldered Hawk.

Juvenile red shouldered hawks

Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk

Red tailed hawk juvenile

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

Which other hawks look similar to the juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk?

The Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk is often confused with the Red-shouldered hawk, but they are not the only similar species. American birdwatchers should also consider the following species before confirming their identification of a young Red-shouldered Hawk.

  • Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus): The broad-Winged Hawk is easily confused with the Red-shouldered-Hawk. They are a smaller species, with sharper wing-tips and are not present in winter.
  • Female Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus): Although somewhat similar in color and patterning, harriers occur in much more open habitats than Red-Shouldered hawks and are leaner, longer-legged birds.
  • Juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii): Juvenile Cooper’s hawks are smaller birds with relatively short, broad wings and obvious barring on their long tail.

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