8 Types of Hawks That Live in Idaho! (2021)

What types of hawks can you find in Idaho?

 

common hawks in idaho

 

Getting the chance to see a hawk is always fun. I enjoy watching these raptors everywhere, whether I am in my backyard, hiking in the woods, or even seeing one perched on a fence while I’m driving!

 

After doing some research, I was amazed at all the different hawk species in Idaho! 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 8 types of hawks that live in Idaho!

 

Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which hawks live near you! For each species, I have included a few photographs, along with their most common sounds, to help you identify any birds you are lucky enough to observe.

 

Do you need help identifying hawks?

 

Here are a few books and resources you can purchase that will assist!

 

At the bottom, please let me know which hawk species you have spotted before in the “Comments” section! 🙂

 

Hawks That Live in Idaho (8)

 

*For each hawk listed below, 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!*

 


#1. Red-tailed Hawk

types of hawks in idaho

 

This hawk is common in Idaho 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

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

species of hawks in idaho

 

Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawks in Idaho, 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

Sharp-shinned Hawk Range Map

 

Sharped-shinned Hawks are common in Idaho 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!

 

Press PLAY above to hear a Sharp-shinned Hawk!

 

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

common hawks in idaho

 

Cooper’s Hawks are commonly found in Idaho 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

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!

 

cooper vs sharp shinned hawk - types of hawks in idaho

 

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!

 

Press PLAY above to hear a Cooper’s Hawk!

 

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.

 

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

species of hawks in idaho

 

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 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. Rough-legged Hawk

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 Idaho during winter when they migrate south.

 

Rough-legged Hawk Range Map

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

 


#6. Swainson’s Hawk

swainsons hawk

 

Swainson’s Hawks are a raptor of the west and can often be spotted soaring or perched on fence posts, telephone poles, or trees in open areas.

 

These hawks arrive each April in Idaho and spend their summers breeding and raising their young here. Towards the end of August or beginning of September, they begin a LONG distance journey to Argentina! If you’re keeping score, that is around 6,000 miles and takes up to two months. And remember, they make this trip twice per year.

 

Swainson’s Hawk Range Map

Swainson's Hawk Range Map

 

As they are migrating, Swainson’s Hawks often form large “kettles,” where they join with other species such as Broad-winged Hawks and Turkey Vultures. In certain spots where natural funnels occur, it’s possible to see THOUSANDS of raptors soaring together at once, which resembles an actual river of birds.

 

It seems some birds get lost during migration!

 

Every year, small populations of Swainson’s Hawks can’t get around the Gulf of Mexico and spend their winters in Florida and the Texas coast. In the opposite hemisphere, it’s common for some birds to stay for a whole year in the tropics or end up in random parts of South America, far from Argentina.

 

The call of the Swainson’s Hawk is a harsh alarm call that sounds like “kreeeeer,” which often lasts 2-3 seconds.

 

Length: 18-22 inches / 46-56 cm

Weight: 24-48 oz / 680-1360 gm

Wingspan: 46-54 inches / 117-137 cm

Scientific Name: Buteo swainsoni

 


#7. Ferruginous Hawk

ferruginous hawks

 

Ferruginous Hawks are beautiful raptors that live in the open areas of Idaho. The largest of the North American hawks, these birds have long broad wings and a wide gray, rusty, or white tail.

 

These hawks have two color forms you may observe.

 

  • The light morph birds have a rusty brown back and pale underparts.

 

  • The dark morph individuals are dark brown and chestnut-colored on both their back, chest, and belly. Dark morph birds are much rarer to see than light ones.

Ferruginous Hawk Range Map

Ferruginous Hawk Range Map

 

Somewhat social, Ferruginous Hawks may roost in groups during winter, which can contain between 6-12 individuals. Mated pairs seem to be mostly monogamous and are incredibly adaptable nesters. For example, these hawks will use trees, rock outcrops, ledges, haystacks, nest platforms, power poles, various other human-made structures, and the ground for nests.

 

These raptors have a fairly limited diet and rely mostly upon small mammals for food. Interestingly, they have multiple hunting strategies they deploy. My favorite being their technique of running or hopping on the ground after their prey!

 

Their alarm call sounds like “kree-a” or “kaah,” and is typically given when defending territory or frightened. Some people think it sounds similar to a gull.

 

Length: 20-27 inches / 51-69 cm

Weight: 2-5 lbs. / 900-2270 gm

Wingspan: 47-60 inches / 1.2-1.5 meters

Scientific Name: Buteo regalis

 


#8. Osprey

osprey

 

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 Idaho?

 

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

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

 


Which hawks have you seen before in Idaho?

 

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