Red Tailed Hawk vs Red Shouldered Hawk

Hello to all the readers of the Shelf Life in the Mountains Blog! My name is Annie and I have been working at the beautiful Jackson County Public Library in Sylva for almost two months now. I have also been an avid bird watcher for about four years. It all started when I moved from New York to the upstate of South Carolina. I had never seen so many different varieties of birds before (hummingbirds, Carolina wrens, nuthatches, red breasted grosbeaks, etc.) and I started to look them up in my copy of the Peterson Field Guide (which we have many copies of available for checkout at Fontana Regional Libraries). Here is a link to Fontana Regional’s copy of The Peterson Field Guide to Hawks: go ahead and place it on hold and go grab your binoculars!

My first step to becoming a bird watcher was to set up a bird feeder, which attracted all sorts of birds to the space right outside my window. I eventually found that if I painted a quick picture of the birds I saw, I ended up remembering their names easier the next time they came around. I highly suggest drawing or painting the birds that you see, just to keep track, because it really will train your eye to identifying features. The Blue Ridge Mountains are a great place for bird watching and I’ve learned of so many different species of birds since I moved here, but there’s one area in which I know I need improvement:  raptor identification. There are so many different kinds of birds of prey (see below), and they all have a lot of similarities.

Red Tailed Hawk. Photo by Alan Vernon Flickr license
Broad Winged Hawk. Photo by Francesco Veronesi Flickr License
Cooper’s Hawk. Photo by Matt Tillett Flickr License
Red Shouldered Hawk. Photo by Andy Morffew Flickr License
Sharp Shinned Hawk. Photo by Seabamirum Flickr License

One issue I run up against when I spot a raptor is that I don’t know what identifying factors to look for when I see a hawk because their plumage, shapes, and sizes seem so similar to my untrained eye. So I’ve done some research, and I would like to share with you what I found.

One of the first things I stumbled upon was this very interesting article about how learning the shapes of these birds of prey can be very helpful when identifying a raptor that might be soaring or gliding far above you. “ID Tips for Raptor Watching Season” According to this article, written by Marc Devokaitis, the red tailed hawk has “long, broad wings” as opposed to the red shouldered hawk, which has “forward arching, squared off wings”. There are very good pictures of these hawks in the Peterson Field Guide to Hawks as well. (The Peterson Field Guide to Hawks )

The red tailed hawk and the red shouldered hawk are two of the most frequently seen hawks in North America. That is why I decided to focus this blog on the differences between the two.

The red tailed hawk stays here in the southeast all year round, unlike the red shouldered hawk, which spends its summers in the northeast, then comes down south for the winter. 

Red Tailed Hawk. Photo by Alan Vernon Flickr License

Red tailed: Buteo Jamaicensis

Buteo is a genus that defines wide-winged, medium-to-large birds of prey. Most hawks are classified under the genus buteo. Jamaicensis is in reference to Jamaica, where this hawk was first scientifically studied. The red tailed hawk can be seen along highways, atop telephone poles, fence posts, and by large open fields as they search for small mammals like mice, voles, and rabbits. They also eat insects and insect larvae, but I bet they prefer a more filling meal than just bugs! They are, however, opportunistic feeders and it is very common to see a red tailed hawk on a lamp-post by the highway, waiting on a nice piece of roadkill. Notice (in the picture above) the dark coloring spreading from this hawk’s head to about halfway down the top of his wings. These are known as the “patagial marks” and are a great way to identify the red tailed hawk, because dark patagial marks are almost always exclusive to the red tailed hawk. His tail and entire body are also larger compared to the red shouldered hawk. The wingspan of a red tailed can reach 56 inches and it can weigh up to 3.3 lbs. This hawk loves to glide and soar on updrafts from cliffs and wood edges.

Red-shouldered hawk taking flight at Green Cay Nature Center. Photo by Gouldingken in Wikipedia License

Red shouldered: Buteo lineatus

The red shouldered hawk is also very common in North America but prefers wooded forests to open fields, and its population has been hurt recently by pesticides and habitat loss, making it a little less likely to see. Lineatus has its base in the Latin word for lines, most likely named for the bands that are prominent in the plumage of a red shouldered hawk, which is a good way of distinguishing it from the red tailed; notice the crescent shaped bars running across the tail and the wingtips. These crescents are the best way to identify the red shouldered hawk while it is in flight. The red shouldered hawk also has more of a linear pattern to the feathers on its breast and belly, as opposed to the sporadic spots on the underside of a red tailed hawk. This raptor likes to flap its wings three to five times before gliding.

Notice the lines on the belly of the red shouldered (left) as opposed to the paintbrush-flecked breast of the red tailed (right). Photo of the red shouldered hawk from the San Diego Zoo wikipedia Photo of the red tailed hawk by Mathew Townsend wikimedia

Here are a few good questions to ask yourself when attempting to distinguish between a red tailed hawk and a red shouldered hawk:

  1. Is it on an electric wire? There is a very good chance that this is a red shouldered hawk, because red tailed hawks are often too big to perch on an electric wire.  
  2. Is there an open field nearby? Red tailed hawks prefer to hunt in fields as opposed to the red shouldered hawk which prefers the cover of wooded areas.
  3. Is there a distinct linear pattern to the plumage? Lines are for the red shouldered hawk: remember buteo lineatus!

Fun fact: A group of hawks is called a kettle.

If I have achieved my goal, and you are now itching to get started on your raptor watching adventure, then visit a local “Hawk Watch”. A Hawk Watch is a specific location where professional and novice birders gather to spot and count hawks! They then log what they have seen on this very helpful and interesting website: Here is a list of three local hawk watches you can visit in western North Carolina. 

Alleghany Hawk Watch This hawk watch is located at mile marker 235 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Mt. Pisgah Hawk Watch This hawk watch is located at mile marker 404.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Linville Hawk Watch This hawk watch is located inside the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation nature park 2 miles north of Linville, NC.
Thank you for reading my first blog! Let me know in the comment section if you have seen any of these beautiful birds lately.

Still yearning for more?

Check out H is for Hawk, a non-fiction book about a woman and her relationship with a deadly bird of prey that surprisingly helps her heal after the death of her father. You can also follow this link to a website that has a live-stream from a camera placed high up in the nest of a red tailed hawk:


Clark, W. S., & Wheeler, B. K. (1987). A field guide to hawks, North America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.


2 thoughts on “Red Tailed Hawk vs Red Shouldered Hawk

  1. Welcome Annie. Really interesting .I enjoy watching birds and have often wondered about the different types of hawks. Now thanks to you will be able to know two!

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