Our raptors are ubiquitous but easily confused with one another. In western Pennsylvania, with its thick forests, sloping mountains, and suburban regrowth, we regularly can see sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, broad-winged hawks, and the occasional rough-legged hawk, northern harrier, and northern goshawk. Add in the red-shouldered hawk, and we have some eight species of winged hunters for which to keep our eyes open.
The red-shouldered hawk is a beautiful, if not uncommon, mid-sized raptor of our forests. While walking between the Spring Hollow Trail and the Meadowview Trail at the Audubon Society’s Beechwood Farms in Fox Chapel, one flew by me at shoulder height and glided along so that I got a perfect view. With a wingspan between 18 inches and two feet, the bird’s black and white, banded tail was like a rudder, allowing it to twist and turn through the trees. Because it was low, I could see the rufous shoulders from which it gets its name. Its rufous chest and checkerboard wings were a blur.
The memory of that bird is especially fixed in my mind, as Beechwood had, at the time, a non-releasable, rehabbed bird of the same species that could be studied at a respectful distance. For a second, I thought that captive bird might have recovered and escaped, but not so. This was a wild cousin, one that graced the woods with its intense, quiet vigilance. Red-shouldered hawks hunt rodents and squirrels, reptiles and amphibians. They might snatch a bite near a pond or from the forest floor or nab a bird that has gotten lazy at a feeder. They use powered flight as well as soar and circle.
In Pennsylvania, this species’ numbers have increased, a boon to their overall population, which has likewise seen slight upticks. They prefer bottomland forests or wet, woody valleys and pick deciduous trees to build nests, which they often use in future years as the species shows affinity to its nesting territories. Breeding surveys show concentrations in the northwest and central regions of the commonwealth, though red-shouldereds nest each spring and summer throughout the state. They build stick nests and lay three-to-five white or blueish eggs, mottled with brown. Young grow quickly, going from nearly featherless to white fluff balls to free flying adolescents in a matter of six or seven weeks (the envy of many a human parent). By fall, red-shouldered hawks head to the mid-Atlantic and southern United States, even as far as Mexico, to enjoy milder climes.
Fall is a season of migration, so it’s worth the effort to trek to some of the hawk watches that make Pennsylvania so renowned among birders. If Hawk Mountain is too far, try the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, where experienced birders will happily share their knowledge as the skies are dotted with traveling raptors. Or perhaps a walk at Audubon’s Beechwood Farms will bring this stunning hunter into view.
Email your avian encounters, photos, or questions to PQonthewing@gmail.com.