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Red-shouldered hawks moving into the valley

A hawk with a red belly and zebra-striped wings darts through the maze of oaks and lands on a limb. The male red-shouldered hawk holds the remains of a mouse in its beak and gives a soft call. In a moment, the female leaves the nest and lands next to the male, taking the offered meal.

She looks a bit nervous as she eats greedily, pausing frequently to look about for threats to the nest. The male, though he doesn't incubate all that much, flies to the nest and settles on the eggs for a short turn. The female relaxes and eats more slowly, no longer worrying about ravens or jays. Male hawks of all kinds provide almost all of the food to the female while she incubates and when the young are small.

This domestic scene played out on the hill behind my house this spring and would have been unheard of 20 years ago in the Rogue Valley. To see a red-shouldered hawk you would have had to go south into California. In 1990 in Jackson and Josephine counties, there were just a couple of birds near the Rogue River in the Denman Wildlife Area and near Wildlife Images in Merlin. Thirty years ago there were none. We are witnessing an invasion of sorts from California.

Red-shouldered hawks are close relatives of the familiar red-tailed hawk. They are smaller and more secretive, though if a pair is in the area, you will soon know it. They are one of the most vocal hawks, calling frequently, especially early in the day. Unlike red-tailed hawks, they prefer to hunt mice and snakes from a perch under a canopy of trees and only occasionally soar high above the treetops.

Throughout North America, most regions support two species of hawks of the genus Buteo or their very close relatives. These are large hawks, most noted for perching high in the open and waiting patiently for a small animal to stray too far from cover. In the Northeast, it is the red-tailed and broad-winged hawk. In the desert Southwest, it is the red-tailed and Harris's hawk. In the prairie states, it is the Swainson's and ferruginous hawk.

I have often wondered why Western Oregon and Washington supported but a single species, the red-tailed hawk. It looks like this curious oversight by Mother Nature is in the process of being corrected. Red-shouldered hawks have expanded their range northward along the coast and into the Willamette Valley, breeding near Eugene and having been seen as far north as Portland. They can even be found in riparian habitats east of the Cascades.

The reason for the range expansion is not clear, but several other species, including white-tailed kites, black Phoebes and acorn woodpeckers, also have headed north in recent decades. Milder winters and habitat change are two possibilities.

If you wish to see a red-shouldered hawk in Jackson County, your best chance is along the roads in the foothills where the oaks give way to agricultural land. They often perch on power lines, unlike the larger red-tailed hawks. The agricultural lands along the coast between Brookings and Crescent City provide an even better opportunity to see one.

Stewart Janes is a Biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.

Red-shouldered hawks, once rare in Oregon, are moving into the area from California. - Photo courtesy of Norm Barrett