Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) are medium-sized birds of prey that occur on the west coast and throughout the eastern half of the United States. They are known as birds of forested areas, woodlands, and riparian areas, but what do they feed on, and how do they find their food?
Red-shouldered hawks are highly opportunistic hunters. These birds feed on a variety of small animals, including insects, mammals, small birds, frogs, reptiles, and even fish. They will also feed on carrion when possible.
A large variety of prey animals have been identified through observation, which allows us a great insight into the life and biology of these beautiful raptors. Knowing what these birds eat also allows us to paint a broader picture of how the species fits into the ecology of North American woodlands.
Read on as we explore the diet and hunting methods of the red-shouldered hawk.
Red-shouldered Hawk eating a frog whilst perched in a tree
Red-shouldered hawks are birds of prey, which means they feed primarily on other animals that they hunt for themselves. They are opportunistic hunters that will feed on just about any small animal that they can catch.
Continue reading to learn more about the types of prey that these hawks feed on.
Red-shouldered hawks have been recorded feeding on a variety of different small animals. Their choice of prey is usually governed by what animals are around and most easy to capture. Overall, small mammals are the most important component of their diet although frogs can become very important in wet seasons.
Let’s take a look at some of the most frequently reported mammalian prey items of the red-shouldered hawk:
Red-shouldered hawks will also feed on a variety of non-mammalian animals. At times, these animals may be more abundant and easier to capture than mammals, making them the dominant food source. Red-shouldered hawks have been seen catching and feeding on the following cold-blooded prey animals:
A red-shouldered hawk eating a snake
Red-shouldered hawks have been known to feed on a wide variety of bird species. They will often hunt birds attracted to feeders and common backyard birds like starlings, house sparrows, and mourning doves are frequent victims in such situations.
Red-shouldered hawks will also feed on a variety of native songbirds. A study in Georgia recorded the following species:
There is limited data on the amount of food that red-shouldered hawks consume in the wild. The amount of food required by these birds is likely to vary based on the following factors:
One study on red-shouldered hawks with a small sample size (2 captive individuals) found that the birds ate just over 11% of their body weight each day on average. As a very rough estimate, then, an average 600g adult might consume about 66g of food per day, which could be equated to 2 or 3 small rodents.
Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a wooden post with prey in its beak
Red-shouldered hawks use their keen sense of vision (and hearing to a lesser extent) to detect their prey. They generally hunt from a perch and watch the ground or water around them for signs of movement.
Red-shouldered hawks typically hunt by flying down from a perch onto their unsuspecting prey. They catch their prey with their needle-sharp talons and powerful feet. Once impaled, their meal has little chance of escape.
These birds rely on the element of surprise rather than sheer speed to catch their prey. They will also fly low over open areas hoping to surprise a small animal that they can swoop on. Occasionally these adaptable birds will even hunt from the ground.
Red-shouldered Hawk diving towards prey
A study found that there was no important difference in the amount of prey brought to a nest in the morning and afternoon. This indicates that prey may be caught throughout the day, at least while the birds are nesting.
Red-shouldered hawks feed largely on small mammals that do not hibernate and non-migratory birds in the winter. This is a time of year when only warm-blooded animals are likely to be active and available to the hunting hawks. Cold-blooded prey like insects, reptiles, and amphibian prey will be more difficult to find.
Red-shouldered Hawk in flight, Florida
Insects, reptiles, and amphibians become active when the weather warms, allowing the hawks an important additional food supply. When abundant, frogs may become the dominant food source as they are easy to catch.
The female red-shouldered hawk provides most of the food to the chicks. She delivers the food directly to the beak of the baby when young.
In one study on red-shouldered hawk nesting, more than half of the prey items delivered to the nest consisted of small mammals. The young were fed a large variety of prey items, however, including frogs, snakes, birds, insects, and even fish.
Two red-shouldered hawk chicks waiting patiently for food in the nest
Red-shouldered hawks are not usually attracted to feeders. There are some reports of people regularly feeding habituated birds small pieces of meat, however.
Red-shouldered hawks drink fresh water from shallow streams and ponds. The high water content of their prey also helps to keep them well-hydrated.
Red-shouldered Hawk in flight with a recently caught snake
The best way to attract red-shouldered hawks to your yard is to create the kind of micro-habitat they prefer for hunting, nesting, and roosting. Some homeowners unintentionally attract these birds to their yards by providing food and water to songbirds.
An established woodland-type garden with a natural water feature would probably be especially attractive to these hawks. Growing native plant species that attract a variety of small animals will also increase your chance of attracting red-shouldered hawks.
Red-shouldered hawks are not known to be omnivorous. They eat all sorts of different animals, including carrion, but they do not feed on any fruits, grains, or other plant material. These birds are therefore classified as carnivores.
Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a branch in the forest
Eastern gray squirrels have been positively identified as part of the red-shouldered hawk diet. They will probably also feed on western gray, fox, and flying squirrels when possible.
Red-shouldered hawks typically feed on prey that weighs just a few ounces, so pet owners have very little to worry about. They are highly unlikely to eat a dog although they could potentially take a tiny puppy or feed on a dog that has died from other causes.
Hawks usually do not feed on hummingbirds. The effort required to catch these tiny birds just isn’t worth the reward. In fact, there is some evidence that hummingbirds benefit from having hawks around because the birds of prey keep other potential predator numbers down.
Red-shouldered Hawk hunting for prey in the forest
Red-shouldered hawks do not often feed on chickens, although it is certainly possible that they could. These hawks tend to focus on much smaller prey items, but chicks and small breeds could be taken.
Red-shouldered hawks are highly unlikely to feed on domestic cats. Such a meal is simply too large and dangerous for these birds. It is possible that they may feed on a young kitten, however, but any adult cats fed on by red-shouldered hawks are likely to have died from an unrelated cause.
Even though red-shouldered hawks are equipped to take larger, faster prey, they will happily feed on insects and other invertebrates. Unsurprisingly, they have been known to feed on worms and grubs.
A red-shouldered hawk foraging on the ground for prey
Birds are an important part of the red-shouldered hawk diet, although small songbirds are most often targeted. Red-shouldered hawks have been seen with ducklings but it is not known how important ducks are as a prey source.
Red-shouldered hawks have been recorded feeding on the yellow perch (Perca flavescens). They will undoubtedly take other fish species when possible, but this is not an important component of their diet.
Red-shouldered hawks do occasionally feed on rabbits, although this is an unusually large prey item for these birds. They have been observed feeding on the eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus).
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