The red-shouldered hawk has an expansive range primarily split between eastern North America and western California.
However, it has recently expanded into Oregon and Arizona. Eastern and Western populations of this raptor inhabit riparian hardwood and mixed-coniferous forests.
Nesting habitat for the red-shouldered hawk includes tall, large diameter trees where they can build below canopy while remaining high off the ground. Nest sites are located near or in riparian areas, such as by a stream or pond.
Nesting season for the red-shouldered hawk typically begins in early spring. Some variation amongst different regions does exist.
In this complete guide to red-shouldered hawk nesting, we will take a closer look at nesting habits and habitat requirements. Read on to discover more!
Red-shouldered hawk at nest
Red-shouldered hawks typically nest in deciduous (hardwood) or mixed coniferous forests. Larch are common nest sites because of their dense foliage.
Nests are built against the tree trunk, offering the most protection from predators and the elements. Additionally, unlike other raptors that build nests in treetops (above the canopy), red-shouldered hawks nest under the forest’s canopy cover.
Despite building below the canopy, these hawks still prefer to have their nests 40 to 60 feet off the ground. Nest trees are generally taller and have a greater diameter than other surrounding trees.
Red-shouldered hawks nest in a variety of deciduous and coniferous trees. Larks and hemlock are among the most common nest sites. These hawks require tall trees with thick diameters where they can nest under the canopy, at least 40 feet off the ground.
Red-shouldered hawk inside the nest with chicks
Red-shouldered hawk nests form a circular platform made of twigs and other plant matter. Building materials include live and dead limbs, fresh evergreen twigs, leaves, corn husks, corncobs, entire plants (such as mullen), tissue, straw, and old songbird nests.
The interior is lined with softer materials, such as moss, lichen, and other soft plant matter. Sprigs of fresh hemlock or other evergreens are often added throughout the nesting period.
Female Red-shouldered hawk sat on her nest
Red-shouldered hawk nests are quite large. The exterior typically measures 45-60 cm in diameter, leaving a 20 cm diameter in the interior or cavity. The nest height usually measures 20-30 cm, while the interior depth is 7-7.5 cm.
What time of year red-shouldered hawks nest varies slightly depending on the region. Most eastern populations lay between March and April. However, southern habitants in Florida may lay as early as late January. Birds on the west coast also lay early, beginning in February.
Hatching generally occurs between April and May, with exceptions occurring farther north. In Eastern Canada and the northernmost United States, the red-shouldered hawk may not lay until late May. Thus, hatching would not begin until June.
Overall, nesting typically occurs between spring and mid-summer, with birds in warmer regions beginning in winter.
Perched Red-shouldered hawk during the summer
Breeding season begins at courtship. A pair generally starts building or refurbishing their nest during the courtship process. Nest construction can take anywhere between 7 days (for refurbishing) and 4-5 weeks (starting from scratch).
Once the nest is built, the female will soon lay her eggs. The incubation period lasts between 32-40 days. Then, the nestling period lasts another 42-49 days.
From nest building to the young leaving the nest, the breeding season lasts about 150 days.
Red-shouldered hawks build their nests by collecting materials and shaping those materials into a round platform with a cavity in the center. Materials primarily include various sticks and twigs.
Other plant matter is placed around the exterior and used to line the interior once the foundation is complete.
Nests are typically located in the crook of a tree against the main trunk. This helps conceal the location and protect the site from wind and rain.
A nesting Red-shouldered hawk gathering materials to construct the nest
Baby red-shouldered hawks generally leave the nest between 42 and 49 days of age.
Before fledging, young are fed by their parents. The female will stay with the chicks almost exclusively for about three weeks. During this time the male is the sole provider of meals.
After about three weeks, the young are more independent and able to tear apart food themselves. At this point, the female begins to leave the nest to hunt as well.
A pair of Red-shouldered hawk chicks inside the nest
Red-shouldered hawks lay one brood per year. Because the first nest cycle takes nearly 150 days to complete between pair formation and fledging, there is little to no time left for a second brood.
If the first brood is unsuccessful, a pair may have a replacement clutch. This largely depends on the time of year and food availability.
If it is early and food is plentiful, a replacement clutch is likely. If it is too late into the summer, the birds will wait until the following breeding season to lay again.
Red-shouldered hawks are known to reuse the same nest site for several years. Pairs are monogamous and return to the same territory year after year, so it makes sense to refurbish an old nest. The process is much faster than rebuilding, which can take 4-5 weeks.
If a nest is destroyed or the pair loses a clutch, they will often nest in a new location next year. Otherwise, these birds primarily return to the same site.
A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks in spring
Red-shouldered hawks generally have 2-4 eggs around 54.5 mm in length and 43.3 mm in breadth. Size can vary ever so slightly depending on the region. Coloration is primarily flat white or faintly blue with brown and lavender markings.
What month red-shouldered hawks lay eggs depends largely on their region. Laying primarily occurs between March and early April. However, in colder regions such as eastern Canada and the northern United States, laying does not start until late May.
A recently fledged young Red-shouldered hawk
For the most part, the female sits on the eggs while the male hunts and brings her food. However, if the female needs to leave the nest to eat or preen, the male will incubate the eggs for a short time.
Red-shouldered hawks may use nest boxes or, more accurately, nesting platforms. These would need to replicate the raptors' natural nesting habitat.
Placement would need to be 40 to 60 feet in the air, preferable against a tree trunk with foliage that provides decent cover.
Red-shouldered hawk chick stretching wings in the nest
During nesting season, the female will stay on or near the nest at night with the male nearby. However, when not looking after chicks, red-shouldered hawks typically nest high in a tree with dense foliage, perched close to the trunk- similar to the location of a nest.
Such a spot offers the best protection from predators and inclement weather.
Red-shouldered hawks are known to nest in backyards and more populated areas in general. When this occurs, the raptor still requires the same habitat specifications, trees large in height and diameter near a water source.
Close up of a Red-shouldered hawk perched on a backyard fence
Red-shouldered hawks will only abandon a nest upon significant disturbance or if the nest has been destroyed. In general, raptors, such as the red-shouldered hawk, will defend their territory and not give it up to predators or competitors.
Red-shouldered hawks do not nest on the ground. This would leave the raptors exposed. Plus, their eggs or young would be more vulnerable to predation. Instead, these birds have adapted to nesting high in trees.
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