What types of hawks can you find in Alaska?
After doing some research, I was amazed at all the different hawk species in Alaska! These birds of prey come in all shapes and sizes, live in all sorts of habitats, and even eat widely different foods, from insects to reptiles to mammals.
6 types of hawks in Alaska!
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#1. Red-tailed Hawk
This hawk is common in Alaska and is a species that many people are familiar with.
These large raptors are often seen on long drives in the countryside, soaring in the sky or perched on a fence post. The plumage color of Red-tailed Hawks can be anything from nearly white to virtually black, so coloration is not a reliable indicator. The best way to identify them is by looking for their characteristic red tail. 🙂
Red-tailed Hawk Range Map
These hawks are highly adaptable, and there is no real description of their preferred habitats because they seem to be comfortable everywhere. I have seen Red-tailed Hawks almost everywhere, from the deep backcountry in Yellowstone National Park to urban cities to my own suburban backyard! Pick a habitat, such as pastures, parks, deserts, roadsides, rainforests, woodlands, fields, or scrublands, and you’ll find them thriving.
Red-tailed Hawks have impressive calls that are easily identified.
In fact, people are so enamored with their screams, it’s common for directors to use the sounds of a Red-tailed Hawk to replace Bald Eagles that appear in movies. In case you have never heard one, Bald Eagles don’t make sounds that live up to their appearance (putting it nicely!)
These large hawks rely mostly on mammals to eat, so they shouldn’t bother any birds that come to your feeders. Their most common victims include mice, voles, rats, ground squirrels, and rabbits. But you may also see them eating snakes, carrion, or larger birds (starlings, pheasants, blackbirds).
Mating for life, Red-tailed Hawks prefer nesting in the tallest trees that offer the best view of the surrounding territory. In more urban environments, these raptors will use window ledges or select the highest spot on a billboard. They will often reuse nests from previous years, but if a new one is required, they can assemble it in less than a week.
Length: 18-26 inches / 45-65 cm
Weight: 1.5-3.5 lbs. / 700-1600 gm
Wingspan: 43-55 inches/ 110-140 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis
#2. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawks in Alaska, and they are incredibly athletic and acrobatic. It’s common to see these raptors zipping through the woods or by your bird feeders in a blur of motion!
To identify these birds, look for bars of orange on their upper chest that fades towards the belly and blue-gray back and wings. When they are flying, their wings are relatively short and rounded, but with a long tail. Females are considerably bigger than males.
Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map
Sharped-shinned Hawks are common in Alaska in forested areas. They are most often seen around bird feeders, hunting and preying on the songbirds that come to visit. These raptors are ambush predators, sitting patiently and then dashing out from cover at high speed to chase birds, which make up 90% of their diet.
In my backyard, I see them catching Mourning Doves the most.
One way to verify you have seen a Sharp-shinned Hawk is to listen for their sounds. Individuals give a high-pitched shrill “kik-kik-kik” which is typically repeated several times.
Length: 9-13.5 inches / 23-37 cm
Weight: 3-8 oz / 82-220 gm
Wingspan: 16.5-26.5 inches / 42-68 cm
Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus
#3. Northern Goshawk
Northern Goshawks are secretive birds that are hard to see, as these birds of prey prefer living in large forests away from civilization. Many people mistakenly think they have seen one in their backyard when it was just a Cooper’s Hawk, which looks kind of similar.
A dark-colored head that is usually paired with deep red eyes makes the Northern Goshawk hard to mistake. The underbody is often a bluish-white to light gray with barring. The upper body is blue-gray or even brown with certain morphs.
Northern Goshawk Range Map
Northern Goshawks are widespread in their range but are hard to see, especially in the suburbs and city. Some individual birds are short term migrants during colder months, heading south until adequate food can be found. Other birds stay in the same place all year.
These raptors are close relatives to both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, except they are larger and fiercer. In fact, if you get too close to a nest, it’s likely that these defensive birds will attack you!
Listen for a harsh “ca-ca-ca” sound. As it calls, they turn their head from side to side slowly, which gives the vocal effect of a ventriloquist.
Opportunistic hunters, Northern Goshawks eat a wide variety of foods. The list includes insects, mammals, birds, and reptiles.
Length: 16-27 inches / 41-69 cm
Weight: 22-50 oz / 630-1400 gm
Wingspan: 35-50 inches / 89-127 cm
Scientific Name: Accipiter gentilis
#4. Rough-legged Hawk
Rough-legged Hawks, which are also called Rough-legged Buzzards and Rough-legged Falcons, spend their summers living and breeding on the Arctic tundra. You can only see these large hawks in Alaska during summer before they migrate south.
Rough-legged Hawk Range Map
Look for these chunky, large raptors in open areas. They have a unique hunting style where they hover while facing the wind looking for food. In fact, they are one of the few birds of prey that truly hovers in place.
Unlike most hawks, this species has feathers all the way down to their feet, which helps keep them warm in the cold environments they chose to live.
These raptors are typically silent, except they make a mewing sound near the nest. (Listen above!)
When Rough-legged Hawks are living in the Arctic, they primarily eat lemmings, which are in plentiful supply. When in the south, they eat other small rodents available, such as mice, voles, and shrews.
Length: 18.5-23.5 inches / 46-59 cm
Weight: 25-49 oz / 715-1400 gm
Wingspan: 52-54 inches / 132-138 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo lagopus
The first thing you need to know about Ospreys is they are NOT hawks! They are not eagles either and, scientifically speaking, have been given their own Family (Pandionidae) and Genus (Pandion), separate from all other birds of prey.
So, why include them on a list of common hawks in Alaska?
Even though Ospreys are not hawks, they certainly look similar to one. Many people think they are looking at some species of hawk when they first observe an Osprey. These raptors have also been given nicknames, such as Sea Hawk, River Hawk, and Fish Hawk, which hint at the association between an Osprey and hawk.
Osprey Range Map
When you think of an Osprey, you should think of fish, because that is what these birds eat 99% of the time. Even an Osprey’s talons are perfectly adapted for catching fish. If you take a close look, you will see they are extremely curved and even intersect when fully closed, which makes them perfectly designed for holding onto slippery fish!
Even more interesting, their outer toe is reversible, which allows them to rotate the toe so they can have two in front, and two in back. Only Ospreys and owls have this unique ability, which allows them to be more efficient hunters.
And these guys don’t just skim the surface and grab their prey near the top like an eagle. Ospreys hit the water HARD and plunge right in to assure themselves of a catch. Amazingly, they can then take off while submerged and with a fish in their talons!
Because of their specialized diet, you will almost always find Ospreys living, breeding, and raising their young around bodies of water. Mating for life, it’s common for them to use human-made nesting platforms. If you live near a large body of water, I recommend installing one to see if you can attract a nesting pair!
Listen for Ospreys next time you are around a large body of water. Their alarm call is a series of short high-pitched whistles that descend in pitch. The noise has been compared to a teapot taken off a stove.
Length: 20-25.5 inches / 50-65 cm
Weight: 3-4.4 lb. / 1.4-2 kg
Wingspan: 59-71 inches / 150-180 cm
Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus
#6. Northern Harrier
- Circus hudsonius
Northern Harriers are one of the most unique hawks you will find in Alaska!
First, most hawks rely on their incredible eyesight to find and capture prey. But Northern Harriers also use their hearing to find food, which is very similar to owls. Even their disc-shaped face resembles an owl. 🙂
The best places to find a Northern Harrier are open grasslands, fields, or marshes. Look for a slim, long-tailed raptor that flies low and has a white rump. Watch an example below!
Which hawks have you seen before in Alaska?
Leave a comment below!