The Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are similarly-named hawks that live in North America. These birds of prey are common across their range, and can be hard to tell apart from a distance. In this article we will look at 8 of the major differences between Red-tailed vs Red-shouldered Hawks. Then at the end, we will learn more about each species.
8 Differences between Red-tailed vs Red-shouldered Hawks
Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks are both birds of prey that eat small reptiles, mammals, and amphibians. Despite their similar look, there are ways to hear and see the characteristics that make them unique.
1. Red-tailed Hawk calls are only one note, while Red-shouldered Hawks are two
The Red-tailed Hawk calls a single “keeeeeaaa.” It can sound like a very hoarse scream or screech, and is more drawn out, lasting for a count of 2-3 seconds. This call is most often given while they are soaring.
This is easily differentiated from the Red-shouldered Hawk’s two-note “keee-yaah,” which is higher and clearer in tone. The second note descends in pitch, and often they repeat this call several times in a row. They may do this while flying or while perched.
2. Red-tailed Hawks have shorter tails and larger bodies than Red-shouldered Hawks
Red-tailed Hawks are a fairly large species of hawk. These larger birds have a broader wingspan, a more barrel-shaped chest, and a short but wide tail.
Red-shouldered Hawks are more medium sized. They appear more delicate, yet lengthier, since their tails are proportionally longer to the size of their bodies.
3. Red-shouldered Hawks live mostly in the eastern US, but Red-tailed Hawks live from coast to coast.
Red-tailed Hawks are very widespread across the U.S. In fact, they are likely the most common hawk in North America. Red-shouldered Hawks share some of this same range, but not all. Red-shouldered Hawks are mainly found in the eastern United States, and in a thin band along the western coast of California. You won’t find them in the southwest, northwest, northern plains or Rocky Mountain states.
4. Red-tailed Hawks Live in Open areas while Red-shouldered Hawks prefer forests.
Red-tailed Hawks are much more common in fields, meadows, and open landscapes. Their greater size works to their advantage there, as they can catch more powerful updrafts and soar over greater distances when hunting prey. From desert to grassland to broken woodland, there aren’t many places they will avoid.
Red-shouldered Hawks prefer to stay in the forest and don’t hand around wide open spaces or dry desert like their red-tailed cousins. You may see Red-shouldered hawks in suburban areas that are interspersed with woodland.
This difference in habitat also contributes to their different sizes. Red-shouldered Hawks smaller size helps them maneuver among the trees when flying through the forest.
5. If the tail is red, it’s a Red-tailed Hawk
This is one easy way to tell between a Red-tailed and a Red-shouldered Hawk. If the tail of the hawk you’re looking at is red, there is no doubt that it is a Red-tailed Hawk. No other hawks in North America have the same type of brick-red tail.
Red-shouldered Hawks have a black tail with narrow white bands.
Of course just to make it confusing, juvenile red-tailed hawks do not yet have a red tail. Their tail is barred brown and white. The dark bands on the tail of the Red-shouldered Hawk will be darker and thicker.
6. Red-tailed hawks have very red underparts
Red-shouldered Hawks have heavy red coloring on the breast that extends all the way down their belly with red barring.
Red-tailed Hawks tend to have a light colored belly. They may have fine streaking on their breast, and often have a band of dark brown streaks running horizontally across their midsection. There are certain dark color morphs that will have a dark breast and belly, however they are less common and will appear more brown than red.
7. Red-shouldered hawks have more white on their wings and back.
If both hawks are perched and you are viewing their back, you should be able to tell the difference in coloration between the two.
Red-shouldered Hawks have dark, nearly black feathers down their back and wings. At the top of their back and “shoulders” this will be mixed with reddish feathers (hence their name). From the mid-back down there will be a lot of white barring mixed in with the dark feathers.
Red-tailed Hawks can have a lot of different color morphs, but for the most part from behind they will appear very brown. They won’t have the reddish coloring on their upper back, and in fact that area may be darker brown. They will have white and brown mixed together, but it will appear much more mottled than the crisp stripes of the red-shouldered hawk.
8. These hawks like to nest in slightly different locations
While both hawks nest in tall trees, they choose slightly different heights for nesting. Red-tailed Hawks prefer the crown or top of tall trees. Up there, they have a great view of the surrounding landscape. Sometimes they will use cliff ledges, window ledges on tall buildings or billboards.
Red-shouldered Hawks remain a little more hidden. They prefer to nest near the top of trees with large leaves, but still under the canopy of the forest. They may choose to be near water such as ponds, streams or swamps.
Length: 18-26 in
Weight: 24-56 oz
Wingspan: 3 ft 7 in – 4 ft 8 in
Red-tailed Hawks are one of the most common species of hawk in the United States. Their call is famous for being substituted in movies for that of eagles, which have much less dignified vocalizations.
Red-tailed Hawks prefer open landscapes which they can survey easily while flying. They have adapted well to human infrastructure and often perch on telephone lines and fences.
A carnivore through-and-through, the Red-tailed Hawks’ diet consists mostly of small mammals and reptiles. They eat lizards, mice, rats, frogs, and even small birds.
These birds of prey are native to most of the North American continent. They dwell year-round throughout the United States and Mexico. Some breed as far north as Alaska!
It’s easy to tell a Red-tailed Hawk from a Red-shouldered Hawk if both are flying overhead. The former has a mostly white underside, except for coppery tail feathers, black wingtips, and a brown bar on its neck and upper wings.
The Red-tailed Hawk gets its moniker from its rust-colored tail feathers, which are visible from above and below. On the top, they are a rich copper color that extends all the way to the feather tips. On the underside, the copper color fades and is bordered by white bars at the end of the tail feathers.
Length: 16-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Wingspan: 3 ft 1 in – 3 ft 7 in
The Red-shouldered Hawk may not be as well-known as its larger counterpart, the Red-tailed Hawk. This hawk is shier and prefers to live in thick foliage where it cannot be spotted as easily as other birds of prey.
These birds of prey prefer to live in forests, where they can perch high in the trees and watch for their prey of choice. Because of the destruction of many forests on the East coast, they’ve grown uncommon. However, they’ve increased in numbers in the western United States, where they like to live in stands of introduced Eucalyptus trees.
Like most hawks, the Red-shouldered Hawk is a carnivore. It hunts and eats small mammals, reptiles, and amphibians, which it finds using both hearing and its acute sense of sight.
Red-shouldered Hawk habitat is mostly limited to the lands east of the Mississippi River. In the American South, they can be seen year round. Some also live on the west coast of California southward into the Baja Peninsula.
The Red-shouldered Hawk gets its name from – you guessed it – its red shoulders. These dusky copper shoulders are present on both males and females. They also have a copper colored head and breast and are smaller than Red-tailed Hawks.
A Red-shouldered Hawk’s tail fans out more than the Red-tailed Hawk. It is colored very differently as well. From the underside, it is brown with several bands of white. From above, it is black with white bands.
Now that you have a clear picture of the differences and similarities between the Red-tailed Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk, you’ll be ready to go out into nature and identify them yourself.