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Living Sanibel: Red-shouldered hawk uses nests for generations; red-tailed hawk largest in Florida

By Staff | Feb 10, 2016

Red-shoulder hawks are typically the hawk found in Florida. PHOTO BY BOB GRESS

Red-shouldered Hawk

When you spot a hawk anywhere in Florida, odds are that it is a red-shouldered hawk. Sightings of other hawks, such as the Cooper’s hawk, peregrine falcon, and red-tailed hawk, are infrequent at best. Its auburn shoulders and brightly patterned wings and tail feathers make it unmistakable. It is a truly beautiful raptor.

Mice, cotton rats, marsh rabbits, snakes, amphibians, worms, snails, and an occasional bird are all on the menu of the red-shouldered hawk. It is a perch hunter, sitting on high Australian pine branches, or other lofty vantage points, then quickly pouncing on prey spotted below. It can often be heard, at a considerable distance, repeating a loud, rapid keeyah, keeyah. It has a disdain for the great horned owl, which has been known to raid red-shouldered hawk nests, and it will shag the owls off when discovered in its area.

The red-shouldered hawk not only reuses the same nest year after year, but also has been known to remain in the same territory, though multiple generations, for more than 45 consecutive years. It is generally monogamous and builds solitary nests.

Red-tailed Hawk

The red-tailed hawk is the largest hawk found in Florida PHOTO BY BOB GRESS

The red-tailed hawk is the largest hawk in Florida. It weighs slightly more than its cousin, the osprey, and has a wingspan that approaches five feet. There are 14 recognized subspecies found throughout North and Central America. The largest concentration of these birds in the world occurs in El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico. Although it is one of the most widely distributed hawks in the Americas, it has never been abundant in Florida and is a fairly uncommon sighting here.

The red-tailed hawk, when gathered young, is readily trained in the art of falconry. The endangered status of the North American falcon population has led to the red-tailed hawk as a suitable replacement, though it is larger than and not as quick as a falcon. In the wild it is both a perching bird and a soaring diver. Its broad wings allow it to float high in the air looking for suitable prey. When it spots a rabbit, duck, or small rodent, the red-tailed hawk swoops down at a speed that can exceed 120 miles per hour and makes the kill. Its screaming, shrill cry is unmistakable.

In many ways this hawk is the diurnal equivalent of the nocturnal great horned owl. In fact, these two birds are fierce rivals, both for nesting sites and hunting ranges. If a great horned owl finds an active red-tailed hawk nest, it will invariably destroy the eggs or chicks. The great horned owl is also fond of using the red-tailed hawk nest to raise its own clutch.

The adult red-tailed hawk is almost never preyed upon, since it weighs more than the largest owls, and a mature female can weigh nearly as much as a bald eagle. The eggs and chicks are preyed upon by raccoons, crows, and great horned owls.

-This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.