Red shoulders?

Red-shouldered Hawk in Explore the Wild.

People who are not familiar with the species often look at me with confused eyes when I tell them that the hawk perched in the trees before them in the swamp here at the Museum is a Red-shouldered Hawk. Why would they name this hawk “red-shouldered,” and where are the red shoulders?

A Red-tailed Hawk has a brick-red tail. That name makes sense. The Red-shouldered Hawk (RSHA) has a reddish belly and chest. Why not name the hawk Red-bellied, or Red-breasted Hawk? Even the Latin name for this hawk doesn’t give a clue as to why it’s named red-shouldered, Buteo lineatus means lined or striped hawk.

RSHAs have a reddish patch of feathers, which comprise most of the secondary upper wing coverts, that stretch from the actual shoulder of the wing to the wrist. The red “shoulder” is not always visible on perched birds.

The red patch is not always obvious when the bird is perched (same bird as above).

It’s a different story when the birds take flight or have their wings stretched out to preen, or when dealing with prey.

The reddish colored upper wing coverts (so-called shoulder) are obvious in flight (photo – 10/09).
This RSHA has just dropped in on a frog in the Wetlands. Note the red wing patches (photo – 4/10).

So, now you know why the Red-shouldered Hawk is called a “Red-shouldered” Hawk. But wait, what are secondary wing coverts?

Coverts are relatively small feathers that overlap and cover the bases of the larger flight feathers on a bird’s wing, the primaries and secondaries. The coverts that cover the bases of the primary feathers are called primary coverts. You can probably guess what the coverts that cover the bases of the secondaries are, that’s right, secondary coverts.

There are coverts on both upper and lower surfaces of the wing to cover both sides of the flight feather bases. The coverts are further divided into groups as the greater primary covers, median primary coverts, lesser primary coverts, marginal primary coverts…there are also coverts that cover the bases of the tail feathers…their purpose is to create a continuous, smooth surface across the wing, or tail, which aids considerably in the act of flying, less drag.

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