The red-shouldered hawk is a very common raptor species found throughout Georgia, including in and around Atlanta. The adults of this species are very attractive with a rusty colored breast, a beautiful black and white banded tail and a brownish colored back with back feathers scalloped in lighter color. The eyes are brown and the cere (fleshy skin at the base of the beak) is often very yellow. The wings, when seen folded are black with white markings. The red-shouldered is a Buteo, meaning a broad winged hawk, somewhat related to the smaller broad-winged hawk and the larger and more powerful red-tailed hawk. All 3 of the broad-winged type hawks may be found in the Atlanta area during Spring and Summer. Red-tails and red-shoulders can be found year round where-as broad-wings head for the tropics for winter. They are indeed REAL snowbirds!
The red-shouldered hawk, even though fairly large, enjoys being in the understory of the forest and they are especially fond of wetland habitats. Any place there is a pond, creek, stream or river there will be red-shoulders in the vicinity. Their preference for wetlands has to do with the animals these birds predate. During winter, they feed on small rodents such as chipmunks and voles but when the weather is warm they shift their diet to snakes & frogs as well as continuing to feed on small rodents. I live in Marietta, Ga. and I have red-shoulders in residence year round. They spend a great deal of time, in trees just over a creek that flows through my yard and they sit on my deck or on an arbor next to my pond. Unfortunately, I get a few midland water snakes in my pond every year but they usually are taken out by red-shoulders by early summer. I say unfortunate because I enjoy having the snakes in my yard. In addition, the red-shoulders prey on the numerous green frogs that favor my pond but usually by June, there are so many frogs and so much emergent vegetation that the red-shoulders are never successful in removing all of the frogs. Plus the frogs main activity is nocturnal and red-shoulders are diurnal raptors.
During this time of year (late Feb.), red-shoulders are already courting and their calls are very loud and distinctive. The nice thing about technology is if you want to hear the call of a red-shouldered hawk, Google it and you will be able to hear the call of the red-shouldered. Typically once you have heard it, you will recognize it every time you hear one in the future. Red-shoulders have an elaborate courtship where the male will fly quite high, screaming of course and he will make very impressive dives past a flying female or a female that is perched. There is much vocalization and watching the male can be quite spectacular as he rapidly accelerates to great rates of speed in trying to impress a nearby female. Once a pair bond is established, nest building consists of using sticks, limbs and just about anything else they can carry. They usually will place the nest in the fork of a tree and it can vary considerably in height. I have had red-shoulders nest in my yard over 60 feet above the ground. I have also witnessed a nest in downtown Atlanta that was only 25 feet above the ground. In this particular nest, the male was a full mature male but the female was a 1 year old bird…..still supporting immature plumage. (Birds don’t read the books written about how they are suppose to act, mate, lay eggs etc) Anyway, during that same year, there was also a 1 year old, brown backed peregrine that laid viable eggs in Dunwoody, Ga.)
Red-shoulders may occasionally be very protective of nest sites and there are reports every year from concerned residents that proclaim that a hawk is diving on them as well as their pets. Sometimes, it is not just diving but occasionally contact is made and wounds may result. That is just the price of having a pretty awesome hawk in your yard or vicinity. Give them their space and observe the nesting, feeding of young and fledging…..it is far better than anything you can view on TV!
Over the years I have had the pleasure of working with a lot of raptors (birds of prey) and even though I do not like my resident red-shoulders getting the water snakes out of my pond, that is still something that they do and nature provides natural controls of all species. Due to this, I do not do anything to deter the predation that takes place. Of interesting note, the only year I had a wonderful water snake population throughout the summer was a year that I had Cooper’s hawks nesting in my yard. These very gutsy avian predators kept the red-shoulders out of their territory, which of course included my yard and pond. The Cooper’s hawk feeds on birds but do not bother the frogs, snakes and other aquatic or semi-aquatic residents. Of course the trade off………I had very few small birds successfully nest that year out of my bird houses. Many of the nuthatches, bluebirds and titmouse were either fed upon by the adult Cooper’s or fed to their extremely voracious young.