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Santa Clarita CA
Today in
S.C.V. History
October 18
1876 - Southern Pacific begins subdividing town of Newhall (original location at Bouquet Junction) [story]

Commentary by Sarah Brewer Thompson
| Thursday, Jan 2, 2014

sarahbrewerthompson_mugThe red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) is one of the more common birds of prey in the Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.

They are often confused for their better-known cousins, the red-tailed hawk, with whom they share the same brownish-red coloring and overall body shape, but are smaller in size. This common misconception is also because from the time we are young, red-tails seem to be the term we are taught for every hawk we see, because they are the most commonly seen hawk in Southern California.

Because we rarely get to see these incredible birds up close, it is hard to see the differences between the species of hawks, especially those in the Buteo family, meaning a group of hawks with strong, sturdy bodies and robust wings (unlike the slim, tapered wings and bodies of some falcons). They are also often confused in other parts of the country with their cousin, the broad-winged hawk, which we do not see out here.

BB | Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson

BB | Photos by Sarah Brewer Thompson

Probably the most striking feature of the red-shouldered hawk is its coloring. Their name comes from a reddish shoulder patch, although it is not the most prominent part of their coloring. They have an overall rust-red/brown coloring that is speckled or checkered with tan, brown, black and bits of white.

Their bodies and under-wings are a rust-red, but their tails are what really stand out. They feature a bold banding of black and white stripes on both the top and bottom and are really visually stunning when you can get a glimpse of them up close in person or in a photograph.

There are five known subspecies of red-shouldered hawks, with the majority of them living in the eastern and southeastern portion of the U.S., and another population living in the western U.S. They are all Buteo lineatus, with the subspecies name added as follows: California (what we have here), Buteo lineatus elegans; North Florida, alleni; South Florida, estimus; and Texas, texanus.

The eastern and southeastern populations of red-shouldered hawks are similar in terms of markings to their western cousins but are usually paler. Although the eastern and southeastern groups come into contact with one another, they are separated by more than 1,000 miles from their western cousins, which are more bright and bold in their coloring and are the most different of the five subspecies.

redshouldered2There is also a notable color difference between juvenile and mature hawks, but interestingly, these differences are less obvious in the California population than in their eastern cousins.

Red-shouldered hawks are commonly referred to as “buzzards” or “chicken hawks,” because they are about the size of a chicken and when given the chance, they prey on domestic chickens.

The term “buzzard” often causes confusion, as it has various meanings depending on whom you ask and where in the world you live. The Old World-European meaning of the term refers to various species of hawks, especially Buteos. However, in the U.S., the term was used by early settlers to refer to species of scavengers (namely turkey vultures) as a more derogatory term for birds seen as dirty and bothersome, which survived on eating dead animals (“carrion”).

Although they have a healthy population, red-shouldered hawks do not thrive in the same numbers as their red-tail cousins because of their smaller size (meaning they are a little lower on the predatory pyramid) and their more restricted hunting and habitation areas.

They are often found in forested areas, and they occur in higher numbers where there is abundant water, such as around lakes or rivers. For example, they are commonly seen around Castaic Lake.

Their diet consists mainly of small rodents, reptiles and amphibians, including snakes and smaller birds.

Although they are not the largest hawks, they can hold their own against other larger birds, as they are very protective of their territories. They can often been seen chasing and being chased by members of the Corvid family of birds (ravens, crows, jays), using their large, sharp talons to ward off their predators and bothersome neighbors.

Red-shoulders are well built, medium-sized hawks and can be compared in size to a crow or raven. They are typically 15 to 20 inches in length, with a wingspan of 37 to 42 inches, and usually weigh 1.1 to 2 pounds (compared to a red-tail, which usually weighs from 2 to 3 pounds).

Like the other Buteo hawks, they have a substantial, relatively stocky body and wide wings with rounded tips. However, they have a longer tail than most other Buteos, and they have long, strong legs with four toes on each foot and a sharp talon on each toe.

During flight, they often soar in high, circling motions, watching the ground for prey that might be moving below them. They can be seen perched in high trees or, in more urban settings, on signs or poles.

redshouldered1Like most hawks, their nests are built with sticks and usually located mid-way up a tree, and the nests are lined with plant material such as leaves, lichens and smaller sticks. A clutch usually consists of two to five eggs, which the mother incubates for about one month. The little hawks fledge 40 to 50 days later and reach full maturity at around two years. Red-shouldered hawks have relatively long life spans, with some recorded living in captivity more than 20 years.

Their call is a rapid series of slurred whistles, resembling the sound, “peeer, peeer, peeer,” or a repetition of five to 10 high-pitched “kee-ahh” sounds.

Red-shoulders that live in captivity are usually vocal birds, but their unassuming calls don’t seem to match these powerful little hawks. It’s a curious phenomenon in most birds of prey, including eagles.

Pictured here is BB, a female red-shouldered hawk that was rehabilitated and lives at Vasquez Rocks. She is the chattiest of the Vasquez birds and is highly quizzical and observant. She seems to enjoy checking out what is going on around her from her mew, or from the arm of one of the caregivers at Vasquez.

She is one little lady that is not known for being shy. If you walk by bird enclosures, you can often hear her little chirping sounds. It often surprises people that this little noise is coming from such a powerful hawk and not a small songbird.

BB was born in the spring of 1999 and came into the care of the county when she was only 3 or 4 months, after she had been shot through her wing by a BB gun. Like Scooter the barn owl, BB is 100 percent physically healthy, but she is missing one essential aspect that would give her a chance to survive: the ability to hunt. Because she was injured and rehabilitated at such a young age, she missed that crucial phase in her development where her mother would have taught her how to hunt and survive on her own, making her forever non-releasable.

She was hand-fed during the first months of her life and now enjoys eating pup rats and lizards. Without the ability to find her own food, she would quickly become prey for another animal, whether on the ground or in the sky. Being in good health, she is expected to live a long life at Vasquez.

Her captivity doesn’t prevent her from having a social life. She even has a male red-shouldered hawk that comes and visits her, and they chatter to one another.

We hope she stays around for quite a while and continues to serve as a wonderful teaching aid, reminding us all, young and old, to take care of the wild things around us and appreciate these incredible birds.


Sarah Brewer Thompson was born and raised in Agua Dulce, where she learned to love and appreciate nature and history. She is a master’s student at California State University, Northridge, and a docent at Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. Her areas of interest are local history, archaeology and animal studies.


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