Red-shouldered hawks are forest raptors. In the east, they live in bottomland hardwood stands, flooded deciduous swamps, and upland mixed deciduous–conifer forests. They tend to live in stands with an open subcanopy, which makes hunting easier. They are not exclusively birds of deep forest, though; one can find red-shouldered hawks in some suburban areas where houses or other buildings are mixed into woodlands. In the west, they live in riparian and oak woodlands, and also in eucalyptus groves and some residential areas.

Red-shouldered hawks search for prey while perched on a treetop or soaring over woodlands. When they sight prey, they kill it by dropping directly onto it from the air. When in clearings, they sometimes fly low to surprise prey.

Red-shouldered hawks have very sharp vision and reasonably good hearing, with talons capable of killing animals at least equal to their own size. Small mammals are typically the most important prey, especially rodents. Voles, gophers, mice, moles and chipmunks may locally be favored based on abundance.

Slightly larger mammals, such as rabbits and tree squirrels, are also occasionally preyed on. Other prey can include amphibians, reptiles, birds, fish, and large insects. They will attack birds up to the size of a Ruffed Grouse or Ring-necked Pheasant. During winters, red-shouldered hawks sometimes habituate to preying on birds at bird feeders.

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