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Red-shouldered/Red-tailed Hawk Hybrid?

I lurk on a listserv that has a bunch of beyond hardcore birders fine tuning really tough bird identification issues. They mostly talk about gulls which makes my eyes glaze over, but last night an interesting little pickle came up.

A woman posted a link to a photo of a raptor that has been stumping Vermont birders as to whether it is a red-tailed hawk or a red-shouldered hawk. I just looked at the photo on that page and thought “red-tail” to myself and didn’t dig any deeper. A few replied to her email to the list that it was a red-tail and started speculating on which sub species.

Then Sibley stepped in.

He dug further into the website and looked at this photo and this photo. I have to admit, the second photo is a bit more intriguing and I can see the features that would make someone think “red-shouldered hawk”. Then, there is the link to the bird’s call. That sounds like a red-shoulder to me. So, here is what Sibley had to say:

“What an interesting bird! While I had a momentary first impression of “western Red-tail” that was quickly dispelled as I looked at more details and I think this can only be a hybrid Red-tailed x Red-shouldered Hawk!

The pattern of orange breast with sparsely streaked and barred belly seems like a mixture of the two species and not normal for either, the posture and body shape in some photos looks like Red-tailed, in others like Red-shouldered, and several photos show clear reddish accents in the smaller wing coverts which is wrong for Red-tailed. I’m sure a careful analysis would reveal lots more “mixed” characteristics.”

A hybrid red-tail and red-shoulder? Are you kidding me? Who knew? I’ll be curious to see how this pans out. Boy, what I wouldn’t give to get a feather off this bird to send in for some DNA analysis.

18 comments to Red-shouldered/Red-tailed Hawk Hybrid?

  • Carolyn H

    I certainly agree that it’s an interesting bird, but I’m sure not ready to jump off the cliff and call it a RT x RS hybrid. I’ve never heard of those two species hybridizing before. I think I’ll stay on the cliff edge for now, but if you poked me, I’d call it a redtail.

    Carolyn H.

  • Leanne

    Now I’m wondering what exactly it was that I saw in my backyard last summer. I’ll have to dig up that photo and see if anyone can id him from what I have. He looks like a hawk/owl hybrid – had me stumped for days!

  • Andrea

    That’s a really interesting bird! The first picture that popped up for me must have been a different one than you saw (I got this one, and while the head didn’t make me happy the orange breast certainly made me think Red-shouldered. I don’t know what I would have called it if I’d come to the bird without the suggestion being planted.

    Then there’s this one which seems to be quite orange underneath and have relatively little contrast between head and underparts, and the posture in this one which seems more like Red-shouldered than Red-tailed.

    If different experts are reaching different conclusions after looking at different pictures — and if they’re reasonably certain these pictures are in fact all of the same bird, an issue that doesn’t seem to have been raised, then maybe a hybrid is the best explanation after all. These guys are so far out of my league in bird ID that we aren’t even playing the same sport, but I wouldn’t be happy dismissing this as yet another red-tail, or even as my default Buteo when I don’t get a decent look, the “Probably a Red-tailed Hawk”.

  • birdchick


    I wonder if you saw a northern harrier? They kind of look like an owl/hawk hybrid.


    I do wonder if it’s the same bird in all the photos too. Although, where the bird is being seen is very close to several east coast raptor experts. I have a feeling people will be out to get a look at it in the coming days.

  • Liz

    If this is the same bird, I’d say its feet are too scrawny to be a red tail. A hybrid would be cool, though!

  • Julie in VT

    I’ve been reading this blog for awhile now, but I took a few days off and look what happened? Y’all started discussing my bird :)

    So hi– I’m Julie; the photos you guys are discussing are all my photos, and this has been a bit of an interesting journey. I’m posting here to help clarify something– if you go to:

    you’ll see the birds grouped by date. Here’s what I can tell you: every one of those birds from October 2006 through the present is, I am absolutely certain, the exact same bird.

    The others I -suspect- are the same bird (save for the August 2006 one, which was taken in Northern New Hampshire), but I’m not dead certain about them being the same bird, though I think they probably are.

    I’ve been observing this bird (if it’s the same one) since 2005, and I had trouble identifying it at first, but I’m now convinced that it’s at least part red-shouldered. I’ve been asking if it’s even -possible- for it to be a hybrid RT/RS, because if it is possible, this explains a lot.

    I’ll continue to take pictures of it from time to time, but I doubt more pictures will provide us with more information at this point– I’ve documented it -extremely- well on the visual end, and I’m happy that I finally got an audio recording of it to help add to the data.

    I’ll make a point over the weekend to see if it’s dropped any feathers by its usual spot (I’ve seen it preening in the tree we most often spot it in)– if I can get a feather sample, that might tell us a lot. Or just confuse us further. Ah… birds :)

  • Leanne

    Holy Harrier – he’s beautiful! We do have several red tailed hawks in my neck of the woods (IA/IL border on the Mississippi), so for a while there I thought he was a young red tail. His face looked too owly, though, once I got a photo of him.

    I really need to dig that up!

  • Leanne

    Ok, here’s my bird – all input is welcome, he lives in the trees behind my house.

  • Leanne

    (try this link)

    Sorry for hogging up your comments! I hope you find him interesting. More importantly, I hope you know what he is!

  • birdchick

    Hi Julie,

    Thanks so much for giving us some clarification on this interesting raptor. Keep up to date on anything else you find.


    Your bird in the photo is a female American kestrel.

  • Susan Gets Native

    I am leaving this one up to peeps with more know-how!
    A very cool, intriguing bird.

  • Judy

    If there’s further discussion on your experts’ ID list about this bird, do you think you could post it? It’s quite a puzzle, with very knowledgeable people vehemently insisting the bird is a RS, an RT or a hybrid. I don’t get the idea of a pure RT having essentially no patagial marks, no hint of a bellyband as an immature, and a thick tail band, but I’d like to hear more from my betters.

  • Julie in VT

    Judy– two people have insisted to me directly that the bird is pure red-tail; one gave a great deal of detail but it included some detail that was incorrect. I.e., he referenced some marks that do not actually exist on the bird that were actually just lighting effects which only show up on one picture, but in direct observation and in most of the other pictures, don’t exist.

    In another case, I got told it was a red-tail by someone who gave me no detail as to why but said he hadn’t listened to the bird’s call. I’ve asked people to have this conversation in public so we can have a better conversation about it, but very few have done so. I think this is partially my fault because I’ve been very direct about challenging birders who are much more experienced than I am when they insist that it’s just an unusual red-tail, so I can understand that a few of them are a bit fed up with me by now :)

  • birdchick

    Here is a link to the archives of Frontiers of Field Identification. Scroll down and you can read comments on the red-tail/red-shouldered hybrid.

  • I (heart) Raptors

    It is a dark morph Broad Wing Hawk. The darkies are rare! Broad Wings are very similar to immature Red Tails. There several Falconers that have owned Broad Wings and swore they were Red Tails. It is not a hybrid sorry.

  • birdchick

    Interesting to see someone argue with Sibley.

    How do you explain the call not being a broad-winged call?

  • Hooch

    As we speak I have the same species in my backyard right now…I’m convinced its a red shouldered hawk…but there are some differences. These photos are being taken right now. I cleared out my freezer the day before, and came across a large 2 year old steak. I tossed it in the backyard to hopefully spot some coyotes on my night-vision. As I looked out beside my slider…to my surprise…was this hawk. I live in Columbia Connecticut on Columbia Lake. As I take this shot, its noonish, overcast and 47 degrees F. If you need/want more info/pics…e-mail me at

  • DavidDavid

    I think it’s two Hawks..and both Red Shouldered…one a juvenile and the other an adult. The juvenile feathers look a bit like a Red Tail…at least hereabouts where I’ve had the good fortune to get pics of both!