Red-Tailed vs. Red-Shouldered Hawk: What Is the Difference?

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If you see birds of prey soaring over your property, you may find it challenging to determine which species you’ve spotted. One question frequently asked is how you can tell whether you are looking at a red-tailed hawk or another similar species.

You might be wondering whether, for example, you are looking at a red-tailed hawk or a red-shouldered hawk. These may seem superficially similar from a distance, but looking (and listening) more closely should help you tell these two birds apart.

What is a Red-Tailed Hawk?

red tailed hawk

The red-tailed hawk is a bird of prey with the Latin name Buteo jamaicensis. It is also one of three species sometimes referred to as a chicken hawk.

This hawk is one of the most common members of the Buteo genus in North America and worldwide. This genus is commonly referred to as hawks in North America, while they are known as buzzards elsewhere.

What is a Red- Shouldered Hawk?

red shouldered hawk

The red-shouldered hawk has the Latin name Buteo lineatus. As you can tell from this Latin name, this is another member of the same Buteo genus as the red-tailed hawk.

Though this bird can be similar to the red-tailed hawk, especially from a distance, there are several ways to tell them apart and to determine which one you are looking at.

How Do You Tell the Difference Between the Red-Tailed Hawk and Red-Shouldered Hawk?

There are several ways to tell whether you are looking at a red-tailed hawk or a red-shouldered hawk, including:

  • The geographical location and habitat where you observe the bird.
  • The size of the bird in question.
  • The anatomy of the bird you are looking at.
  • The hue of the bird’s plumage.
  • The sound the bird makes.

Where Red-Tailed Hawks and Red-Shouldered Hawks Are Found

The probability of the bird being a red-tailed hawk is higher since these are the most common species of hawk in North America.

If you live in the northwest, southwest, northern plains, or Rocky Mountain states, you are almost certainly looking at a red-tailed hawk.

Red-tailed hawks are present and widespread across the US, while Red-shouldered hawks are primarily found in the eastern United States and a narrow coastal range down the coast of California.

Another thing to think about is the type of habitat where you see the bird. Red-tailed hawks are more common in open landscapes, like fields, meadows, or even desert areas. There are not many different habitat types, however, that these birds will avoid.

Red-shouldered hawks, on the other hand, are somewhat pickier. They prefer to stay in forest or woodland areas rather than the wide open spaces favored by their red-tailed cousins. They are also often seen in suburban areas, but typically those with plenty of woodlands interspersed.

Size of the Red-Tailed Hawk and Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk:

  • Length: 45–65 centimeters
  • Weight: 690 to 1,600 grams
  • Wingspan: 110-141 centimeters

Red-shouldered Hawk:

  • Length: 38-61 centimeters
  • Weight: 700 grams
  • Wingspan: 90-127 centimeters

As you can see, the red-tailed hawk is slightly larger and typically a little heavier than the red-shouldered hawk. As in other Buteo species, the female is larger and around 25% percent heavier than the male.

Anatomical Differences Between the Red-Tailed Hawk and Red-Shouldered Hawk

When you look at the bodies of these birds, you will also be able to detect differences between these two species.

Red-tailed hawks have broader wingspans, barrel-shaped chests, and short but wide tails.

Red-shouldered hawks are not only slightly smaller and lighter but also more delicately shaped. They have a more elongated appearance, and their tails are longer in proportion to the rest of their bodies.

Plumage Differences Between the Red-Tailed Hawk and Red-Shouldered Hawk

Of course, the birds’ plumage colors and patterns also help us to identify which one we are looking at.

Red-tailed hawks have variable plumage, depending on the subspecies and the region. A whitish underbelly with a dark brown band across the belly, formed by horizontal streaks in feather patterning, is present in most, though not all, color variations.

Most adult red-tails have a dark-brown nape and upper head, which gives them a somewhat hooded appearance, while the throat can variably present a lighter brown necklace.

Especially in younger birds, the underside is covered with dark-brown spotting, and some adults may also show this stippling. The back is usually a slightly darker brown than elsewhere, with paler scapular feathers, ranging from tawny to white, forming a variable imperfect “V” on the back.

One key feature which gives these birds their name is the reddish tail, brick red from above and often looking buff-orange from below. However, the tail’s distinct reddish hue is a defining characteristic in all species.

But, in immature red-tailed hawks of all morphs, the tail is a light brown above with numerous small dark brown bars of roughly equal width. Even in young birds, the tail often has a distinct reddish-brown tinge.

Red-shouldered hawks have brownish heads, reddish chests, and paler bellies with reddish bars. Their tails are marked with narrow white bars. The wings are also strongly barred in adults of the species, and when the birds are perched, the reddish ‘shoulders’ that give the bird its name are apparent.

Juvenile red-shouldered hawks are more likely to be mistaken for young broad-winged hawks but can be distinguished by crescent-like wing markings.

There is some difference, however, between subspecies found in different areas. Western birds, for example, may appear redder, while birds in Florida are generally paler.

Red-shouldered hawks also have small ‘windows’ seen at the end of their primaries, which helps to set them apart from the red-tailed hawk.

Red-tailed hawks are paler underneath and have a reddish tail rather than a barred one. Looking at the tail is typically the easiest way to tell these birds apart. Red-tailed hawks are the only North American hawks with reddish tails and blackish patagium marking on the leading edge of their wings.

Hearing the Difference Between the Red-Tailed Hawk and Red-Shouldered Hawk

One final way to tell these birds apart is not by looking but by listening. These two birds have distinctive calls.

The red-tailed hawk calls with a screech or hoarse scream, drawn out over 2-3 seconds in a single note as they soar.

On the other hand, the red-shouldered hawk sounds a two-note call, which is higher and clearer in tone. The second note descends in pitch, and this noise is typically repeated several times in a row. These birds may call while in flight or while they are perched.

Other Related Birds Compared To Red-Tailed Hawks

Red-tailed hawks, particularly juveniles, might also be confused with other members of the Buteo genus, such as Swainson’s hawks (Buteo swainsonii) – though these have rufous brown beards to help distinguish them. They can also be misidentified as the broad-winged hawk, which is smaller and daintier.

Ferruginous hawks and rough-legged hawks (or buzzards) are also easily distinguishable from red-tailed hawks because of their size and compact and short-necked appearance.

The red-tailed hawk is chunkier-looking than the rough-legged hawk and differs in its darker head, broader, shorter wings, barring on the wings and the tail, and dark leading edge to the wings (rather than black wrist patch). It also has no white base to the tail. The ferruginous hawk is larger, with a bigger, more prominent bill, and has a whitish comma at the wrist and all-pale tail.

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Elizabeth Waddington

Elizabeth Waddington is a conservation, rewilding, organic gardening and sustainability specialist who loves everything nature-related. She loves helping others around the world connect with the wildlife and wonders around them. When not creating wildlife-wise, eco-friendly designs, or writing about the topics that inspire her, she loves spending time watching the birds on and around her own rural property, or heading out on camping or hiking adventures to spot birds and other wildlife in a range of habitats.