Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: 5 Differences

Written by August Buck
Published: March 14, 2022
Image Credit MTKhaled mahmud/Shutterstock.com
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There are so many different types of hawks that you may be wondering: what’s the difference between a red shouldered hawk vs Cooper’s hawk? While both of these birds of prey are unique in their appearances, it can be difficult for the average birdwatcher to identify them. What clues can you use to best understand which bird you are looking at, soaring through the sky?

In this article, we will compare and contrast the Cooper’s hawk and the red shouldered hawk so that you can learn all about their differences as well as their similarities. We will address their physical appearances, their habitat preferences, and their individual behaviors to give you some insight. Let’s get started!

Comparing Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
The red shouldered hawk grows larger than the Cooper’s hawk on average.

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Red Shouldered HawkCooper’s Hawk
Size16-24 inches long; 1-2 pounds14-20 inches long; 1-2 pounds
AppearanceSquare wings with long tail feathers; red shouldered and red markings on underbelly. Black and white striped feathersLarge wingspan with rounded wings; extra long tail feathers. Brown or gray upper body with lighter underbelly
Location and HabitatNorth America; forests and wetlands, or areas near rivers or streamsCentral and North America; forests and temperate climates
BehaviorCircles the sky for prey as well as underbrush; can be extremely territorial with other birds. Known for their aggression, but live near humans oftenHunts in the morning and early afternoon; ambushes prey from camouflaged area, but won’t pursue for very long
Lifespan15-20 years10-12 years

Key Differences Between Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
While both of these hawks are found in similar environments, the red shouldered hawk enjoys habitats closer to water, while the Cooper’s hawk thrives in forested regions.

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There are many key differences between a red shouldered hawk and a Cooper’s hawk. The red shouldered hawk grows larger than the Cooper’s hawk on average. While both of these hawks are found in similar environments, the red shouldered hawk enjoys habitats closer to water, while the Cooper’s hawk thrives in forested regions. The lifespan of the red shouldered hawk is also slightly longer than the Cooper’s hawk as well.

Let’s discuss these differences in more detail now.

Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: Size and Weight

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
The Cooper’s hawk has a luxurious gray upper feather appearance, while the red shouldered hawk is known for its rusty red feathers.

Chase D’animulls/Shutterstock.com

While the differences may be subtle, there are some size differences between the red shouldered hawk and the Cooper’s hawk. For example, both of these birds weigh roughly 1-2 pounds. However, the red shouldered hawk often grows larger than the Cooper’s hawk. The red shouldered hawk grows anywhere from 16-24 inches long, while the Cooper’s hawk grows up to 20 inches long in total.

Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: Location and Habitat Preferences

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
While both of these birds of prey have long tail feathers, the wingspan of the Cooper’s hawk is rounded, while the wingspan of the red shouldered hawk is square.

michaelschober/Shutterstock.com

Many birds of prey are extremely adaptable and flexible in their preferred habitats. While both the Cooper’s hawk and the red shouldered hawk live in North America, the Cooper’s hawk is found throughout central America as well. There are some key differences in their habitat preferences as well. Let’s discuss this now.

Both of these birds thrive in forested regions, especially the Cooper’s hawk. They enjoy the protection of forests and dense woods, while the red shouldered hawk prefers slightly different environments. The red shouldered hawk enjoys areas near water for hunting, while Cooper’s hawks prefer forests or suburban areas near forests. 

Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: Appearance

ed shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
The Cooper’s hawk lies in wait for its prey, using stealth to its advantage, while the red shouldered hawk circles the sky and scans the environment for its next kill.

MTKhaled mahmud/Shutterstock.com

There are more physical differences between a Cooper’s hawk and a red shouldered hawk than simply their sizes. For example, the Cooper’s hawk has a luxurious gray upper feather appearance, while the red shouldered hawk is known for its rusty red feathers. These feathers are located primarily on the chest, or the underbelly of the bird.

A red shouldered hawk has unique and intricate black and white striped feathers on their wings and tails, while Cooper’s hawks do not have this. While both of these birds of prey have long tail feathers, the wingspan of the Cooper’s hawk is rounded, while the wingspan of the red shouldered hawk is square. However, the main way of telling these two birds apart is by looking out for a red shouldered hawk’s red shoulders, a feature not shared by the Cooper’s hawk.

Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: Behavior

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
The red shouldered hawk outlives the Cooper’s hawk on average, which makes sense since they are the bigger bird.

Aussiemandias/Shutterstock.com

Given that both of these birds are skilled hunters, you may be wondering how their behavior differs from one another. The Cooper’s hawk lies in wait for its prey, using stealth to its advantage, while the red shouldered hawk circles the sky and scans the environment for its next kill.

There are also different times of day in which these two birds prefer to hunt. For example, the Cooper’s hawk hunts in the morning and early afternoon, while the red shouldered hawk hunts throughout the day. The red shouldered hawk is also extremely territorial compared to the Cooper’s hawk, often fighting other species of bird over prey and territory. However, the red shouldered hawk doesn’t often feel threatened by the presence of people, while Cooper’s hawks prefer to avoid people in general.

Red Shouldered Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk: Lifespan

red shouldered hawk vs cooper's hawk
The red shouldered hawk is also extremely territorial compared to the Cooper’s hawk, often fighting other species of bird over prey and territory.

Nick Bossenbroek/Shutterstock.com

There are some subtle differences in the lifespans of these two hawks, likely because of their sizes. The red shouldered hawk outlives the Cooper’s hawk on average, which makes sense since they are the bigger bird. The Cooper’s hawk lives an average of 10-12 years, while the red shouldered hawk lives an average of 15-20 years. 

Both of these hawks live longer lives in captivity, especially given the threat of cars and traffic when these two birds are hunting. However, the red shouldered hawk likely lives longer given that it is larger than the Cooper’s hawk.

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About the Author

I am a non-binary freelance writer working full-time in Oregon. Graduating Southern Oregon University with a BFA in Theatre and a specialization in creative writing, I have an invested interest in a variety of topics, particularly Pacific Northwest history. When I'm not writing personally or professionally, you can find me camping along the Oregon coast with my high school sweetheart and Chihuahua mix, or in my home kitchen, perfecting recipes in a gleaming cast iron skillet.

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