Love is in the air for visiting red-shouldered hawks

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service/Lee Karney • A Red-shouldered hawk perches in branches.

As spring creeps closer, lovebirds spring up among a variety of birds, ranging from Eastern bluebirds to Northern cardinals. Of course, this inclination for birds to establish bonded pairs isn’t limited to songbirds.

As has occurred for the past couple of years, a red-shouldered hawk arrived at my home in early February ahead of Valentine’s Day, which proved appropriate considering what transpired after the handsome raptor’s arrival.

The raptor’s usual habit is to choose a perch in the branches of a large willow tree at the fish pond to secure a prominent spot for surveying its surroundings. If it’s the same red-shouldered hawk that has visited in past years, it has overcome its past shyness and does not fly instantly when I step outdoors. In fact, the hawk has remained perched even while I have been engaged in activities around my parked car, the garage and my mailbox.

As I discovered on Feb. 21, this hawk’s not a loner this year. There’s a pair of these striking hawks in residence! There’s ample evidence that they’ve established a pair bond, too. In fact, the two raptors have shown no shyness at all, going about their enthusiastic mating in full view of any and all passersby.

I’m pleased, even if I feel a bit voyeuristic, at this evidence that there’s a mated pair of these hawks that have adopted my home as their own. I’d love for them to decide to nest and raise some young in the nearby woodlands. A neighbor who previously lived close to me had shared on her Facebook page observations and photographs of red-shouldered hawks spending the summer months on her property, so I’m hopeful that my visitors might do the same. My neighbor, now deceased, was extremely detailed in her day-to-day observations of the natural world that took place in the fields and woods around her home.

Photo by Bryan Stevens • This captive red-shouldered hawk was rehabilitated after suffering an injury and now works in an educational program at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina to teach the public about raptors, other birds, and various types of wildlife.

Red-shouldered hawks are definitely a raptor worthy getting to know better. According to a factsheet published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, this raptor breeds in moist woodlands, riverine forests, the borders of swamps, open pine woods and similar habitats. Nesting almost always occurs near water, such as a swamp, river or pond.

Different raptors utilize different strategies for subduing prey. The red-shouldered hawk is an ambush predator. This raptor usually selects a favorable perch and remains motionless and patient while scanning for possible prey. The hawk will drop rapidly onto any prey that wanders carelessly within range. In the summer, prey items largely consist of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and frogs, as well as some insects and crayfish. Most of these creatures are scarce during the colder months of the year, which prompts these hawks to adopt a diet that focuses on rodents and the occasional songbird. Other than the altercations with the resident crows, I haven’t observed any encounters between the hawk at my home and any other birds — with one exception.

Photo by Peter Benoit from Pixabay • A red-shouldered hawk perches on a suburban fence.

On a morning a couple of years ago, a red-shouldered hawk was on its usual perch when seven Canada geese, another rare visitor to my home, suffered some sort of fright and took flight. The noisy geese flew directly over the willow, which spooked the raptor into taking flight in the opposite direction of the departing geese. I still fondly recall that amusing but accidental clash between these two species of birds.

The frogs at my fish pond interrupted their hibernation on Feb. 12 to begin their own amphibious serendades daily. I’ve even speculated that the red-shouldered hawks may have timed their return to coincide with the emergence of this potential food source. Considering how many frogs of several different species make the pond their home, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to think they are one of the major attractions bringing the hawks back year after year.

The red-shouldered hawk produces a distinctive, piercing whistle that reminds me of the shrill call of a killdeer. The two hawks that are visiting this year have been more vocal than usual. In the past I took their atypical silence as an effort to avoid the local crows. So far, the crows have left them alone this year, but in years past the local crows would flock together to mob the unfortunate hawks if they happened to take notice of their presence.

Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A red-shouldered hawk levels a penetrating stare.

During courtship and the subsequent nesting period, these hawks are vocal. At other times of the year, they are rarely heard. It’s also possible for a person to mistakenly think they have heard one of these large hawks. Blue jays have apparently learned to imitate the “kee-yar” call of this hawk, often working a flawless rendition of the whistled notes of this large raptor.

In contrast to the related red-tailed hawk, the red-shouldered hawk soars less and prefers to perch hidden in the cover of trees. This hawk’s name comes from the reddish-brown shoulder patches in the bird’s wings. Adults show a tail marked with vivid bands of black and white that is quite distinctive.

The red-shouldered hawk belongs to the same genus of raptors as its larger relative, the red-tailed hawk. The genus, buteo, includes about two dozen large raptors that are often dominant avian predators in their respective habitats. The red-shouldered hawk is known by the scientific name Buteo lineatus.

The red-shouldered hawk is less common in the region than some of the other raptors. This hawk’s stronghold is in Florida and other southern states like South Carolina and Georgia. I’ve seen many of these hawks on visits to both the Sunshine State and Palmetto State.

Some of the buteo species have adapted to life on islands, including the Galapagos hawk and the Hawaiian hawk. Outside the United States, buteo raptors are often known as buzzards. When the first European colonists came to the New World, they applied the term buzzard to both native vultures, as well as the large raptors like Swainson’s hawk and broad-winged hawk that reminded them of the ones back in Europe.

Around the world, there are some 30 species of Buteo hawks. In the Old World, these raptors are known as buzzards instead of hawks. In the New World, particularly in the United States, the term buzzard more often refers to vultures than hawks.

Some of the more descriptively named Buteo hawks include the gray-lined hawk of South America, the forest buzzard of South Africa and the Eastern buzzard, which is native to Mongolia, China, Japan and some offshore islands.

Several Buteo species have been given common names to honor people. Some of these include Ridgway’s Hawk, named for ornithologist Robert Ridgway; Archer’s buzzard, named in honor of the British explorer and colonial official Sir Geoffrey Francis Archer; and Swainson’s hawk, which is named for British naturalist William Swainson.

It’s been nice hosting these beautiful raptors, although the crows and jays likely disagree with me.

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