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

There are 19 different species of hawks in North America, so it can be challenging to identify the one that is magnificently soaring overhead. The red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks are two of the birds that people get confused the most. Given their similar coloring and native habitats, it can be simple to confuse one for the other. How then do you distinguish between them? Let’s examine the distinctions between red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks.


North America is home to both the red-tailed (Buteo jamaicensis) and red-shouldered (Buteo lineatus) hawks; however, the red-shouldered hawk’s range is somewhat smaller than the red-tailed hawk’s. Nearly the whole of the United States, Canada, and Central America are home to red-tailed hawks. Their range encompasses central Mexico, the West Indies, southern Alaska, Nicaragua, and Panama.

The red-shouldered hawk’s range is, in contrast, more constrained. The red-shouldered hawk, which is native to eastern North America and Canada, can be found in the Midwest, northeastern Mexico, and California’s Pacific coast. Therefore, the likelihood is that the hawk you encounter in the Rocky Mountains, southeast United States, or western Canada is not a red-shouldered.

Now that we are aware of the locations of each species of bird, let’s examine their physical variations.

Red-Tailed Hawk

In North America, the red-tailed hawk is the most widely distributed hawk due to its versatility and extensive range. It’s likely that you have heard the distinctive scream of a red-tailed hawk as it soars over the sky or across a large screen. Because it is more stunning and unique than the sounds of other birds, the red-tailed hawk’s harsh cry is utilized in movies as the shriek of hawks and eagles.


In North America, the red-tailed hawk is the second largest Buteo hawk, smaller only than the ferruginous hawk. Red-tailed hawks are 18–26 inches long and weigh between two and four pounds. The amazing wingspan of females can reach over 4 feet wide, making them larger than males. Short, broad tails and circular wings characterize red-tailed hawks.


The lower back and wing covert feathers of red-tailed hawks are partially covered in white, while their rich brown back is covered in banded feathers. Although they are recognized for their distinctive red tail, the bird does not actually have this coloration until it molts into its adult plumage, which typically occurs at the beginning of its second year. The hawk will have a brown tail prior to this, which may make identification more challenging.

The belly band and pale throats and wingtips of red-tailed hawks are distinguishing features. Moreover, the tips of their flight feathers are colored darker.

By geography and by bird, these colors differ. In contrast to dark-morph hawks, which are more frequently found in northwest Canada and Alaska, lighter-morph birds are more numerous in the West. In the south, hawks frequently don’t have the dark belly band.

Where to Find Them

In North and Central America, red-tailed hawks can be found in almost every open area. They are frequently observed soaring over paused forests, open fields, meadows, and deserts. Red-tailed hawks can frequently be seen peacefully perched along roadside fence posts, telephone poles, and other tall objects. This enables them to search the area from the air for prey, which consists primarily of small animals like mice, voles, rabbits, and other creatures that the hawk eats.

In order to get a clear view of their surroundings, red-tailed hawks likewise prefer to build their nests high in the sky. Nests can frequently be discovered on large trees, cliffs, or even man-made buildings like billboards.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The red-shouldered hawk is a lone, possessive avian. These hawks are nocturnal, with the daytime hours being their busiest for hunting. The red-shouldered hawk is a medium-sized solitary hawk that reunites annually with the same spouse. It is monogamous.


Compared to its red-tailed counterpart, the red-shouldered hawk is smaller. The female is larger than the male, much like in the red-tailed hawk. Male red-shoulders are usually 15–23 inches long, while females are 19–24 inches long. Males weigh 1.21 pounds on average, and girls weigh 1.5 pounds. The range of wingspans is 3.1 to 2.5 feet. Their tails are medium length, and their wings are rounded.


The checkered wings of a red-shouldered hawk are its most characteristic feature. They have brown and white stripes on the bottom and top of their flight feathers. Unlike the red-tailed hawk, which has a single color on its tail, this species has distinct alternating bands of bright and dark on its underbelly. The rich red color of the red-shouldered hawk’s chest intensifies towards the neck and shoulders, where it is barred in red and white.

The striking red hue of adults is absent in juveniles. They have some brown barring on their mostly white chests and underbellies. They lack the characteristic bands on the bottom of their flying feathers found on adult birds.

Where to Find Them

A red-shouldered hawk is likely to return to a location after it has taken up residence. Every year, red-shouldered hawks frequently return to the same breeding location. These hawks are mainly found in regions with forests and towering trees with open subcanopies. They like wooded places. If there is an abundance of prey (such as small mammals, amphibians, lizards, and snakes), they can also be found in residential areas that are wooded. Additionally, they have been known to kidnap smaller, more innocent birds like sparrows, starlings, and doves.

Usually, nests are located in the crotches of tree trunks. Red-shouldered hawks, in contrast to red-tailed hawks, typically build their nests beneath trees and close to bodies of water, like lakes or streams. Lower than red-tailed hawks, they are most frequently spotted perched 6–12 feet above the ground.

Highlights of Differences Between Red-Tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks

Identifier Red-Tailed Hawk Red-Shouldered Hawk
Weight 2-4 pounds 1.2-1.5 pounds
Size 18-26 inches long 15-24 inches long
Wingspan 3.4-4.8 feet 3.1-3.5 feet
Coloration Brown back, white stomach with red tail in adults Checkered brown and white wings with red chest and shoulders
Range All of the United States, most of Canada and Central America Midwest/Eastern United States and Canada, western California, and northeast Mexico