What types of hawks can you find in the United States?
After doing some research, I was amazed at all the different hawk species in the United States! 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 17 types of hawks that live in the United States!
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#1. Red-tailed Hawk
This species is the most prevalent hawk in the United States and the one that people are most 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
In most places in the United States, you will observe more Red-tailed Hawks in the winter than the summer. This is because the birds that spend their summers up north come down in the winter, joining the year-round residents.
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 the United States, 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 forested areas in the United States. 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 the United States 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 the United States 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. 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 the United States 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, 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
#7. Ferruginous Hawk
Ferruginous Hawks are beautiful raptors that live in the open deserts and prairies of the West. The largest of the North American hawks 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
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. Harris’s Hawk
Harris’s Hawks are beautiful birds that can be found in the southwest United States. What’s unique about these hawks is they are incredibly social birds and are typically found together in groups with complex social hierarchies.
Groups of Harris’s Hawks will often hunt together with sophisticated cooperative hunting strategies. Interestingly, once a kill is made, individual birds feed in order according to their level of dominance, similar to a pack of wolves.
When they are not hunting together, individual birds will eat lizards, ground squirrels, birds, and rodents.
Harris’s Hawk Range Map
Harris Hawks do not migrate.
They “own” a territory and stick around all year. You will most likely find them in desert lowlands with multiple high perches, such as trees, power poles, or boulders. Since they live in dry environments, having a consistent water source nearby is a must.
These hawks can make an angry-sounding call that is given when surprised or a threat is near.
Length: 18-24 inches / 46-59 cm
Weight: 1.5-2.5 lbs. / 680-1130 gm
Wingspan: 36-48 inches / 91-122 cm
Scientific Name: Parabuteo unicinctus
#9. Swainson’s 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 the United States 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
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
#10. 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 the continental United States 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
#11. Gray Hawk
The Gray Hawk is hard to see in the United States, as it’s a small tropical hawk that mostly lives in Mexico and Central America.
Gray Hawk Range Map
Gray Hawks love eating lizards, and it doesn’t matter much which species, as they eat almost all of them. Southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas have many lizards for them to dine upon, which is why they venture north into the United States in the first place.
Even when they are around, Gray Hawks are hard to spot, as they sit patiently in the canopy looking for food. The best way to find them is by listening for their calls. The most distinctive noise is a 3-note whistle (“kah-lee-oh”) used to look for mates and define territories.
Length: 16-24 inches / 40-61 cm
Weight: 14-17 oz / 395-480 gm
Wingspan: 34-37 inches / 87-93 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo plagiatus
#12. Short-tailed Hawk
Short-tailed Hawks are mostly tropical birds that live throughout parts of Central and South America. In the United States, they are primarily found in Florida, but they are increasingly showing up in the southwest near the Mexico-Arizona border.
Short-tailed Hawk Range Map
But the population of Short-tailed Hawks in Florida is relatively small and thought only to be around 500 individuals scattered around this large state. In addition, these small hawks stay out of the eyesight of most people by rarely perching out in the open.
Unique for Buteo hawks, these raptors mainly eat birds, such as warblers, red-winged blackbirds, grackles, and meadowlarks. They soar very high and plummet to either take birds on the wing, those perched in tall trees, or sitting in shrubs. Surprisingly they only have about a 10% success rate while hunting.
Length: 15.5-17.5 inches / 39-44 cm
Weight: 14-18 oz / 390-520 gm
Wingspan: 33-41 inches / 83-103 cm
Scientific Name: Buteo brachyurus
#13. Zone-tailed Hawk
These beautiful, sleek, black hawks are found in the southwestern United States, where they breed and raise their young. During the winter months, they migrate to southern Mexico and Central America.
Zone-tailed Hawks look incredibly similar to Turkey Vultures.
Even their flying styles are the same, as both species soar with their wings slightly raised and rock back and forth. It seems that this mimicry helps these hawks hunt since they can blend into a group of Turkey Vultures and sneak up on their prey. The animal they are pursuing doesn’t realize the deception until it’s too late!
Zone-tailed Hawk Range Map
These hawks can only be found in a few states. But since the 1990s, they have slowly been increasing their range northwards.
Length: 18-22 inches / 45-56 cm
Weight: 21.5-33 oz / 610-940 gm
Wingspan: 30-34 inches / 75-86½ cm
Scientific Name: Buteo albonotatus
#14. Common Black Hawk
The entire body of this hawk is coal colored except for a small white patch behind the bill and white bands on the tail. Their bright orange-yellow bill and legs also stand out against their black bodies.
Common Black Hawk Range Map
Common Black Hawks have a limited range in the United States and can only be found in parts of Arizona, Utah, Nevada, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Most of these raptors live farther south into Mexico and Central America.
If you like crab legs, then you have something in common with this raptor. Common Black Hawks love eating crabs when available! They also feed on frogs, snakes, fish, young birds, crayfish, eggs, and insects. You may even spot them wading into shallow water to catch their food.
Length: 17-21 inches / 43-53 cm
Weight: 22-46 oz / 630-1300 gm
Wingspan: 50 inches / 127 cm
Scientific Name: Buteogallus anthracinus
#15. White-tailed Hawk
In my opinion, these large hawks are quite beautiful. They are predominantly a slate grey color with rusty shoulders, and about the same size as a Red-tailed Hawk. As the name suggests, White-tailed Hawks have a brilliant white tail that is easily spotted while flying. Also, look for a black band on the very end.
White-tailed Hawk Range Map
White-tailed Hawks are common in southern Texas, living in open areas such as prairies, grasslands, and pastures.
These hawks have an unusual habit of placing a single long stick on their nest. No one knows why they do this or what purpose it serves!
These raptors primarily eat mammals, and interestingly, some songbird species have figured this out and use White-tailed Hawks as protection. Small birds seem to know that they won’t be eaten for lunch, and rely upon the White-tailed Hawk to scare away other predators that do hunt them.
For example, Northern Mockingbirds are so confident in this strategy they sometimes nest in the SAME bush as these large birds of prey.
While out in the field, listen for a high-pitched whine that lasts a few notes, following by a series of repeated “ke” noises.
Length: 17-24 inches / 44-60 cm
Weight: 31-43 oz / 880-1235 gm
Wingspan: 46½-56 inches / 118-143 cm
Scientific Name: Geranoaetus albicaudatus
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 the United States?
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
#17. Northern Harrier
- Circus hudsonius
Northern Harriers are one of the most unique hawks you will find in the USA!
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 the United States?
Leave a comment below!
*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!*