The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and the Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) are two of America’s most common hawk species. They are also pretty similar in appearance, making them very easy for inexperienced birdwatchers to confuse.
So how do you tell a Red-tailed Hawk from a Red-Shouldered Hawk?
Red-tailed Hawks are significantly larger than Red-shouldered Hawks. They have a characteristic red tail in their adult plumage and can be identified by their belly band and dark patagial marks when seen from below in flight. Red-shouldered Hawks have a boldly barred black and white tail and a rufous belly that extends onto their wings.
Both species are widespread, although Red-shouldered Hawks are restricted to the eastern half of the United States and a narrow band along the West Coast. Birders can spot Red-tailed Hawks in any of the lower 48 states, however.
The two species have different habitat preferences, with Red-tailed Hawks preferring more open country while Red-Shouldered Hawks are birds of the forest, particularly near watercourses and swamps.
Both Red-tailed Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks show significant variation in plumage colors and markings across their ranges. To avoid confusion, we’ll be focusing on the most important differences between these two birds that are usually visible regardless of their subspecies.
This article covers the most obvious differences between the Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk, two of America’s most easily confused raptors.
Red-tailed Hawk in flight, from below
Red-tailed Hawks are bigger than Red-shouldered Hawks. Both species show significant sexual dimorphism concerning their sizes, with the females being up to 25 percent larger than the males.
Read on to learn the average sizes of these two hawk species.
Red-shouldered Hawk in flight, from below
Both hawk species can be very common in the right habitats within their ranges. The Red-Tailed Hawk has a much wider range, however, and is less specific about its habitat requirements, so it is probably fair to say that they are the more common species.
Both species are partially migratory and wide-ranging in the United States. The Red-shouldered Hawk is absent from much of the central and western states, however, which can make it easy to rule out in those areas.
Continue reading for more details on the ranges of these two common hawks.
The Red-tailed Hawk has an extensive distribution in North America from Central America in the south to Alaska in the north. They can be seen in all the lower 48 states of the USA. These birds are partial migrants, visiting the far north of the North West, Mid-West, Mid-Atlantic, and North-East in the warmer months of the year.
Close up of a perched Red-tailed Hawk
Red-Shouldered Hawks are most widespread in the eastern States of the USA. They also occur in a separate population on the West Coast, however. This species is partially migratory, with some birds visiting the far north of their range in the summer.
The eastern population of Red-shouldered Hawks occurs in the following states:
The western population occurs in the following states:
Red-tailed Hawks are birds of grasslands, deserts, pastures, open woodland, and other open habitats. Red-shouldered Hawks are most common in a variety of forest and heavily wooded habitats, especially in areas near water.
A pair of Red-shouldered Hawks, perched at the top of a tree
Differences in plumage are the most reliable clues for distinguishing between these two American hawk species. Keep reading to learn what to look out for when identifying these birds.
The Red-Tailed Hawk is a very variable bird that occurs as twelve subspecies. These include dark morph birds with dark chocolate brown bellies to light morph birds that look almost completely white below.
Most Red-tailed Hawks have a distinctive, broad red tail that is most visible when viewed from below in good light. They also have a darker band of feathers across their belly and dark patagial marks on the front of the wings.
Birders can see these dark marks on either side of the head on the wings’ leading edges. These birds also have larger and broader wings than Red-shouldered Hawks.
The distinctive red tail of a Red-tailed Hawk on show
Red-shouldered Hawks are relatively colorful Buteo raptors. Their wings and back are boldly marked in very dark brown and white patches. These markings contrast clearly with their rich red underparts and yellow legs.
Like the Red-tailed Hawk, these birds vary quite markedly in color according to their subspecies.
Most Red-shouldered Hawks have a red patch of feathers on their shoulders. Their long and distinctive black and white barred tail and reddish brown barred underparts are more reliable clues to look for, however.
In flight, their flight feathers share the same prominent black and white banding as their tails. A semi-translucent, crescent-shaped patch near the wing tips is a conspicuous and distinctive feature to look for on flying birds.
Red-shouldered Hawk on a branch during sunset
Both hawk species have distinctive calls, and the Red-shouldered Hawk can be particularly vocal. Red-shouldered Hawks produce a typical ‘Kee-aa’ call. Red-tailed Hawks have a longer three-noted ‘Kee-eee-ah’ call.
Both hawk species are strictly carnivorous. Each takes a wide variety of vertebrate and invertebrate prey, although Red-Shouldered Hawks take a higher proportion of aquatic prey like amphibians and crayfish.
Red-tailed Hawks can take down much larger prey animals due to their superior size and sometimes hunt animals up to the size of hares.
Close up portrait of a Red-tailed Hawk
Close up portrait of a Red-shouldered Hawk
Both the female Red-Tailed Hawk and Female Red-shouldered Hawk look more or less identical to the males, so bird watchers should look for the same plumage field marks to distinguish between them.
One interesting point to note is that the females of both species are significantly larger than the males. Keep this in mind when using size to make your final identification because a large female Red-shouldered Hawk can be larger than a small male Red-tailed Hawk.
Telling the juveniles of these two common hawk species apart is a lot more tricky because they do not have some of the most distinctive features of the adults.
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk
Juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk
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