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Red-Shouldered Hawk Call

Dear Bird Folks,

I’m almost sure I heard a Red-shouldered Hawk calling near my house last week. I’m familiar with these birds from my time spent in Florida, but have never heard one on the Cape. Do they breed around here?

– Kelly, Brewster, MA


Maybe, Kelly,

It all depends upon your definition of “around here.” In the 1980s, way back before we were all super-focused on social distancing and only bank robbers wore masks, Red-shouldered Hawks were rare on Cape Cod. Then two positive things happened: We banned the use of DDT and we started being kinder to beavers. I think we all know why DDT is bad, but why are beavers important to hawks? Do they eat beavers? No, they don’t, but the hawks love the freshwater habitats the ambitious dam builders have created throughout the state. As the beavers have increased, so have the hawks. Thanks, beavers. (BTW: In an effort to do less typing, Red-shouldered Hawks will be written as “RSHs.” My fingers have become dry, chapped and sore lately, probably from all of the hand washing I’ve been doing.)

The default large raptor in our area is the ubiquitous, Red-Tailed Hawk. By comparison, RSHs are smaller, don’t have very much white on the chest, are more often found in the forest, and, unsurprisingly, have rusty patches on their shoulders. When our trees were cut down, the larger red-tails moved in and the smaller RSHs moved out. The restoration of the woodlands (in addition to the beavers) has helped RSHs return to Massachusetts, where they hunt for mice, frogs, toads, and (cringe) snakes.

Historically, RSHs were mostly found in the western and central parts of the state, but slowly they have been working their way towards the coast. Several pairs are now reported to be breeding on the Upper Cape. Yet, as far as I know, RSHs have not done any nest building here on the Lower Cape. I think that day is coming soon, however, and when it does, I want to be the first one to find the nest. I can’t let the Upper Cape show us up much longer.

Not to take anything away from your auditory skills, Kelly, but Red-shouldered Hawks are so loud and distinctive even non-birders can hear them. During the breeding season, an adult will sit high on a perch and give several piercing “Kee-aah” calls. It will then sit quietly for a few minutes, before yelling again. A couple of years ago, back in the days when I drove a sporty convertible to work, I heard one of these hawks while I waited for the traffic light to change. As I sat at the light listening to the hawk, I tried to figure out which tree it was calling from. After a few minutes, the hawk’s calls were replaced by the sound of honking car horns. Oops! The red light was now green.

Apparently, the drivers behind me weren’t as interested in finding the hawk as I was. A year later, in a cemetery not far from the intersection with those impatient drivers, I once again heard a calling RSH. I pulled into the cemetery, where I could stay and search for as long as I wanted. The cemetery inhabitants were in no hurry to go anywhere. But once again, I never saw the hawk. Fast forward to this year: While at work last week, I once again heard the characteristic call of the RSH. Only this time I ignored it. In my shop there are always bird recordings playing, either from DVDs, or songbird apps or even from clocks (yes, clocks). As a result, I’ve long stopped reacting when I hear bird sounds. But this time the calls didn’t stop. Hmm. Maybe it wasn’t a recording after all. I decided to go outside to see if it was real or just my imagination. It was real. In the middle of a tall aspen, right next to my car, was the very first Red-shouldered Hawk I’ve ever seen “around here.” Yay! I reached for my phone in hopes of taking a documenting photo, but this hawk was in shy mode. It immediately took to the air, circled over my head before flying off into the distance. Although I was a little disappointed that I wasn’t able to snap a photo, at least this time the bird sound I heard was real and not coming from a clock.

Behind my building, and across from Stop & Shop’s parking lot, is a small heavily wooded wetland. Sometimes I’ll walk around this area looking for birds, but mostly what I find is trash. Could these dense wetlands be the home of the Lower Cape’s first RSH couple? Right now it doesn’t look good. Like the hawks I heard at the traffic lights and the cemetery, this bird also seems to be one and done. There have been no further sounds coming from the tall aspen or from the trashy wetlands either…but I’ll keep listening.

As you know, Kelly, once you hear the loud distinctive call of a Red-shouldered Hawk, you aren’t likely to forget it. Even though their population is growing, the Upper Cape is still the best place to look for them. But don’t worry, we’ll get ’em one day, Kel.


On a brighter note:

Remember the Bald Eagles I wrote about last August? They had built a nest near the Brewster landfill, but didn’t lay any eggs. Well, those eagles are back and it appears (according to my sources) that the female is sitting on eggs. Sweet! Soon there could be the very first baby eagles to hatch on Cape Cod in over 100 years. And they’ll be hatching “around here.” In your face, Upper Cape!