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Red-shouldered Hawk - The most common hawk seen in Cape Coral

May 22, 2017 09:50AM ● Published by Kevin

Photo by William R. Cox.

In hunting, the red-shouldered hawk’s strategy is to sit and wait. When it spots its prey it simply drops or glides from its perch for the kill. Photo by William R. Cox.

If you see a hawk perched on a telephone or power line in Southwest Florida, it is probably a red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the most common hawk observed in Cape Coral and all of Florida. Other hawks found in the area, such as the short-tailed hawk (B. brachyurus) and red-tailed hawk (B. jamaicensis), never perch on electrical lines.

This medium-sized raptor (19 inches long with a wingspan of 3.5 feet) has brown, black and white barring on its wings and back. It has a pale grayish or rusty head and a barred black and white tail and bold rusty shoulder patch. Its underparts are whitish with bold buff and orange barring. In flight the underside of the wings exhibit a white crescent at the base of the distal primary feathers. It is similar in appearance to the broad-winged hawk (B. platypterus), which is rare in South Florida and has wider white tail bands and entirely brown wings.

The call of the red-shouldered hawk is a much-repeated, loud and piercing kie-yah, heard especially during the nesting season. The blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata) is excellent at mimicking this call.

Red-shouldered habitat includes pine flatwoods, agricultural environments, sand hills, urban environments, wet prairies, marshes, mixed pine, hardwood forests, pine scrub, mesic hammocks, cypress swamps and hardwood swamps. The two red-shouldered hawk subspecies that breed in Florida are B.l. extinus in the Keys and B.l.alleni throughout the mainland. A third subspecies, B.l. lineatus, breeds north of the state line and migrates to Florida in the winter.

The two resident subspecies breed from January through May. The male performs a “sky dance” to attract a female. He calls while soaring and takes several steep dives toward the female and then flies skyward in wide spirals after each descent, finally diving to perch upon the female’s back.

The mating pair is monogamous and produces one brood per nesting season. They can breed at two years of age and will occupy the same territory for many years.

Nesting red-shouldered hawks can tolerate human disturbance if their nests are placed in large trees with healthy canopies. Photo by William R. Cox.

They build their nest high (20-60 feet) in trees, usually next to the trunk. The nest is constructed of twigs, sticks, dry leaves, inner bark strips, pine needles, moss and lichen and is usually lined with green leaves. The female lays two to four eggs, which she incubates for 28-33 days. The 2.1-inch-long eggs are bluish-white marked with brown. The young hatch on different days and differ in size.

Nestlings are semi-altricial, as they hatch covered with down and with their eyes open. They stay in the nest and are fed by their parents until fledging within 39-45 days.

Nesting red-shouldered hawks can tolerate human disturbance if their nests are placed in large trees with healthy canopies. Nests are usually reused each year unless they become infested with fleas, ticks, fly maggots, mites, fungi or bacteria. Hawks remove the nestlings’ fecal sacs and add green leaves, pine and cypress twigs to combat these infestations. Nests can also be lost to storms or may be taken over by great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) or barred owls (Strix varia).

In hunting, the red-shouldered hawk’s strategy is to sit and wait. When it spots its prey it simply drops or glides from its perch for the kill. This raptor has binocular vision that precisely estimates ever-changing distances to moving prey. It can recognize its prey from a distance approximately two to three times that of humans trying to detect the same animal. The red-shouldered hawk diet consists of lizards, snakes, rodents, insects, crayfish, frogs, toads, sirens and sometimes birds. It has been observed taking great horned owl nestlings.

The red-shouldered hawk is very aggressive defending its territory. It attacks crows, other hawks and great horned owls that intrude. It will lock talons with other hawks in defense of its territory. It tries to drive from its territory all great horned owls, which often take red-shouldered hawk nestlings. Red-shouldered hawks and barred owls require the same type of habitats and prey. They coexist because the red-shouldered hawk hunts during the day and the barred owl hunts mostly at night.

Red-shouldered hawk populations are reduced in several ways. Because of its asynchronous hatching, if food supply is reduced during nesting periods, the last chick or chicks to hatch will perish by starvation (brood reduction). This hawk is also subject to pesticide poisoning and road kill, but habitat loss is the greatest threat.

The red-shouldered hawk is very aggressive defending its territory. It attacks crows, other hawks and great horned owls that intrude. Photo by William R. Cox.

Written by William R. Cox, who has been a professional nature photographer and ecologist for more than 35 years. Visit him online at williamrcoxphotography.com.

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