What types of hawks can you find in Virginia?
After doing some research, I was amazed at all the different hawk species in Virginia! 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.
Below are the 9 types of hawks that live in Virginia!
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#1. Red-tailed Hawk
This hawk is common in Virginia 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 Virginia, 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 Virginia 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.
These hawks are incredibly similar to the Cooper’s Hawk, and these two species have confused birders for years (including me!). One of the best ways to tell them apart is by size. Sharp-shinned’s are significantly smaller than Cooper’s, with the former being about 6 inches (15 cm) shorter and half the weight than the latter (on average).
Cooper’s vs Sharp-shinned: How to identify!
Unfortunately, these two birds are rarely perched next to each other in a tree, so it’s almost impossible to judge their actual sizes. I have misidentified these hawks more times than I can count. My best advice is to watch the above video, study field guides, and find a more experienced bird watcher who can help you learn how to tell them apart!
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. Cooper’s Hawks have a deeper call that sounds more like “cak-cak-cak.” With a little practice (and patience!) I’m sure you can learn the difference.
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. Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s Hawks are commonly found in Virginia in woods or on the edge of fields. These raptors are known for their flying agility. I see them often at my house in high-speed chases through the canopy going after their prey.
Cooper’s Hawk Range Map
Many people don’t want Cooper’s Hawks around.
Because of their incredible flying abilities, these raptors primarily eat songbirds and are common to see in backyards around bird feeders. At my feeding station, I have observed these hawks preying on Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and Mourning Doves.
If you don’t enjoy watching the “circle of life” in your yard, it’s relatively easy to get these birds of prey to move on to other feeding grounds. Try taking your feeders down for a few weeks to force them to look for food elsewhere, but don’t be surprised if they come back as soon as you start feeding birds again!
Visually, a Cooper’s Hawk looks incredibly similar to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, as described above. Their steely blue-gray appearance is nearly identical to the Sharp-shinned hawk, right down to the little black cap that both wear and the rufous colored chest.
The BEST way to tell these hawks apart is to look at the size difference. Cooper’s are larger than Sharp-shinneds. But if they are airborne, good luck figuring out which one you are observing!
The most common sound a Cooper’s Hawk emits is an alarm call that sounds like “kuck, kuck, kuck” or “cak-cak-cak.” Listen for a bassier sound than the higher-pitched Sharp-shinned Hawk. PRESS PLAY BELOW!
In contrast to many other birds, males are usually responsible for building the nest. The female seems to just sit back, relax, and make minor adjustments when the male does something she doesn’t like. 🙂
Length: 13½-20 inches / 35-50 cm
Weight: 8-24 oz / 220-680 gm
Wingspan: 24½-35½ inches / 62-90 cm
Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii
#4. 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
#5. Red-shouldered Hawk
Distinctly marked, Red-shouldered Hawks have a barred rufous chest, mostly white underwings, a strongly banded tail, and of course, red shoulders that are visible when perched.
Red-shouldered Hawk Range Map
While Red-tailed Hawks own large open areas, Red-shouldered Hawks are primarily forest dwellers. Their favorite places are woods with an open upper canopy since this extra space allows them to hunt more efficiently. These raptors are also common in suburban areas where houses have been mixed into woodlands. I see Red-shouldered Hawks frequently, especially in winter, hunting in my backyard for squirrels.
Speaking of food, these hawks primarily eat small mammals but will feast on snakes, lizards, and amphibians when available.
Red-shouldered Hawk hunting in my backyard!
When hunting, these raptors drop onto their prey directly from overhead, making their hunting style unique. You can see this behavior perfectly above, as a Red-shouldered Hawk tries to catch a squirrel in my backyard! (Don’t worry, the hawk is unsuccessful.)
It’s common to hear a Red-shouldered Hawk before you see one. Listen for a loud call that sounds like “kee-ahh,” which is often repeated several times.
Length: 15-19 inches / 38-48 cm
Weight: 1.1-1.9 lbs. / 500-860 gm
Wingspan: 38-42 inches / 96-107 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus
#6. 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 Virginia during winter when 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
#7. Broad-winged Hawk
The bodies of these small hawks are short and stocky, which makes them perfectly adapted to life in the forest. While Broad-winged Hawks live in Virginia and are fairly common, they are not often seen because they prefer spending their time in the deep woods away from humans.
Broad-winged Hawk Range Map
While these birds spend their summers here in the United States and Canada, they fly south for the winters to Central America and South America. Broad-winged Hawks are probably best known for their epic migrations each fall. It’s estimated that the average bird travels over 4,000 miles total, and that is just ONE WAY, and they have to complete this trip twice per year.
These long-distance flyers often travel south together, soaring on air currents, by the thousands! Getting the chance to watch a “kettle” of Broad Winged Hawks is genuinely awe-inspiring, as you can see in the video above!
Broad-winged Hawks are another perch and pounce species. They sit high up on tree limbs to see the area surrounding them, waiting patiently to swoop down to capture a small mammal, frog, or toad. It’s rare for these raptors to hunt while flying.
These hawks give a high-pitched whistle, typically lasting around 2-4 seconds. The “pe-teeeee” sound has a short first note and a long second one.
Length: 13.5-17.5 inches / 34-44 cm
Weight: 16 oz / 450 gm
Wingspan: 33 inches / 84 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo platypterus
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 Virginia?
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
#9. Northern Harrier
- Circus hudsonius
Northern Harriers are one of the most unique hawks you will find in Virginia!
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 Virginia?
Leave a comment below!
To learn more about other raptors near you, check out these guides!
*For each hawk listed above, you will be able to view range maps, which show where each species lives. The artwork was generously shared with permission from The Birds of The World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!*