One day, Barb Rogers was photographing a family of loud, energetic royalty at Little Swamp Reservation in West Midland County.
She zoomed in on the camera at one of the little birds, whose wings were sticking out as his eyes watched the sky.
Suddenly, a dark figure filled the view of the camera before disappearing upwards.
Rogers slowly moved the camera into position to locate this dark figure and found it to be a red-shouldered hawk.
The video of the kingfisher and the red-shouldered hawk can be viewed on the Wildlife Recovery Association’s Facebook page.
The red-shouldered hawk is listed on Michigan’s Endangered Species List as “threatened,” giving it strong legal protection. Although all domestic birds that are not hunted are legally protected under the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, listing them as “threatened” gives red-shouldered hawks additional protection.
The species is considered “threatened” after surveys and biological studies have shown it to be rare and declining in population or having difficulty maintaining a population.
While red-shouldered hawks are currently listed as “threatened,” they are being considered for de-listing because their number has increased in recent years. Comments on this potential delisting must be submitted to the Michigan DNR by September 30.
With her nearly 40 years of experience rehabilitating falcons through the Wildlife Restoration Society, Rogers knows that red-shouldered hawks are sensitive.
“If a red-tailed hawk gets injured, it has a good chance of surviving,” Rogers said. “Often, a red-shouldered hawk cannot survive the same kind of injury. It is a little smaller than a red-tailed; the legs are less slender, and the whole bird is more refined with a delicate beak and head. Great care.”
Juvenile red-tailed hawks, broad-winged hawks, red-shouldered hawks, and Cooper’s hawks can all look very similar. However, there are slight differences that give clues. The biggest difference is that the red-shouldered hawk (unlike Cooper’s hawk) has a more refined and delicate appearance.
The adult red-shouldered hawk has some differences when compared to the red-tailed hawk. Red-shouldered hawks have a black and white striped tail while red-tailed hawks have rusty red tails. Red-shouldered hawks have reddish hawks on the shoulders when viewed in sunlight, and the abdomen has thin criss-cross stripes of reddish-white feathers.
To identify a red-shouldered hawk in flight, Rogers encourages people to observe “windows in the wings”—white areas that can be seen toward the tips of the wings.
Red-shouldered hawks often fly through the forest under or just above the canopy. They have regular routes. In Little Swamp Sanctuary, they often fly along the entire length of the swamp, often calling out because they use the borders of mature trees that line the wetlands.
On an early morning walk, Joe, Rogers’ husband, noticed a red-shouldered hawk’s nest near the hawk’s competition call. Hawks have a sloping cry of “keow, keow, keow.” Although hawks are often quiet near the nest, this red-shouldered hawk defended the nest area from the northern goshawk, a larger, more powerful hawk that is also rare.
Red-shouldered hawks prefer the nest location near a wetland, river, or stream. Their diet consists of wetland-based prey including frogs, crayfish, salamanders, snakes, insects, and small mammals.
“Red-shouldered hawks prefer extended, mature floodplains and swampy woodlands, punctuated by swamp holes, bull arches, and reservoirs of stagnant water,” according to Bert C.
Rogers explained that in order to locate a hawk in the woods, it is important to walk a diagonal path, not directly toward the hawk. If the red-shouldered hawk has other concerns, such as a competing northern hawk, it may not pay much attention to someone slowly approaching.
“They are very aware of your presence and your movements,” Rogers said. “Even if you are dressed in dark clothes, you (should) quietly sneak up and stop often, bending over to the base of a tree where your outline looks less human.”
Red-shouldered hawks usually build nests near wetland borders in tall deciduous trees. The nest is usually well under the canopy and positioned 20-60 feet high against the tree trunk, with strong branches supporting the opposite side of the nest.
Hawks use sticks, moss, bark, and lichen to build the nest, often using the same nest in subsequent years. They will raise two to four young, or even six when prey is abundant.
In the early 1900s, Michigan had a large amount of wetlands and forested wetlands, perfect for nesting red-shouldered hawks. The number of red-shouldered hawks began to decline in 1943; Deterioration accelerated by 1950. According to Rogers, this decline is believed to have resulted from increased land use for agricultural purposes and the drying and fragmentation of swamp wetlands and woodland wetlands.
In 1986, the numbers of nesting red-shouldered hawks were so low that they attained threatened status in Michigan. A few areas remained that were able to maintain a population and produce enough young red-shouldered hawks to begin resettling the areas.
“The population source must remain in its current state to enhance recovery opportunities elsewhere,” Ebers said. “Management efforts throughout the lower peninsula should focus on maintaining wetland complexes and buffer zones, particularly forested river areas.”
Red-shouldered hawks have nested at Little Swamp Sanctuary for more than 35 years, and Rogers speculates that the sanctuary has been the source of many of the red-shouldered hawks that inhabited the area.
The Wildlife Recovery Association is a 501(c)3 charitable organization dedicated to education, rehabilitation and research for the benefit of wildlife and conservation management to protect rare and sensitive species. To donate to help these wonderful animals, visit wildliferecovery.org or write to Wildlife Recovery Association, 531 S. Coleman Road, Shepherd, MI 48883.