Hawks in the United States: Species and Distribution Overview

We were surprised to discover the vast array of hawk species that inhabit the United States. These impressive birds of prey vary in size, shape, and diet, and can be found in a wide range of habitats throughout the country.

In total, there are 17 types of hawks that call the United States home. From the common Red-tailed Hawk to the elusive Zone-tailed Hawk, each species has its own unique characteristics and behaviors. Join us as we explore the fascinating world of these magnificent raptors and learn more about the diverse bird species that inhabit our country.

1. Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks are the most common hawks in the United States and are easily recognizable by their characteristic red tail feathers. These large raptors can be found throughout most of North America, from Alaska to Panama and the West Indies. The plumage color of Red-tailed Hawks can vary significantly, so their red tail is the best way to identify them.

Red-tailed Hawk Range Map

Red-tailed Hawks are highly adaptable and can thrive in a variety of habitats, including pastures, parks, deserts, roadsides, rainforests, woodlands, fields, and scrublands. In fact, they seem to be comfortable everywhere, and you can find them almost anywhere in the United States. During the winter, you will observe more Red-tailed Hawks as the birds that spend their summers up north come down in the winter, joining the year-round residents.

Red-tailed Hawks have impressive calls that are easily identified.

Red-tailed Hawks have a distinctive call that is easily recognized and often used in movies and TV shows. Their impressive screams are so popular that directors will often use the sounds of a Red-tailed Hawk to replace Bald Eagles that appear in movies. These large hawks rely mostly on mammals for food, so they are unlikely to bother any birds that come to your feeders. Their most common prey includes mice, voles, rats, ground squirrels, and rabbits, but they may also eat snakes, carrion, or larger birds like starlings, pheasants, and blackbirds.

Red-tailed Hawks mate for life and prefer nesting in the tallest trees that offer the best view of the surrounding territory. They will often reuse nests from previous years, but if a new one is required, they can assemble it in less than a week. During the breeding season, Red-tailed Hawks become fierce hunters, protecting their nests and young with their sharp eyesight and powerful wings. Their nests are usually built high up in tall trees, and the female lays 1-3 eggs, which hatch after about a month. The young hawks stay in the nest for about 6-7 weeks before taking their first flight.

Physical Characteristics:

  • 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 Hawk Range Map

Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest hawks in the United States and are commonly found in forested areas throughout the country. 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. 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.

In Our Backyard, We See Them Catching Mourning Doves the Most

Sharp-shinned Hawks are incredibly similar to Cooper’s Hawks, and these two species have confused birders for years. 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). Unfortunately, these two birds are rarely perched next to each other in a tree, so it’s almost impossible to judge their actual sizes. Our best advice is to watch videos, study field guides, and find a more experienced bird watcher who can help you learn how to tell them apart!

Cooper’s vs Sharp-shinned: How to Identify!

One way to verify that 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!) we’re sure you can learn the difference.

In terms of diet, Sharp-shinned Hawks prey on a variety of small mammals, including squirrels, rabbits, and mice. They also eat insects, frogs, and other small prey, such as grasshoppers and crickets. These raptors are known for their agility and speed, which they use to catch their prey.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are found throughout the United States and are commonly seen in forested areas. They are most often seen around bird feeders, where they prey on songbirds. These hawks are ambush predators, sitting patiently and then dashing out from cover at high speed to chase birds.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are fascinating raptors that are a joy to watch in the wild. With a little practice, you can learn to identify them and appreciate their acrobatic abilities.

3. Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk Range Map

Cooper’s Hawks are commonly found in wooded areas and on the edge of fields throughout the United States. These raptors are known for their exceptional flying abilities, which allow them to pursue their prey with great agility. We have often observed them at our house engaged in high-speed chases through the canopy in pursuit of their prey.

Many people don’t want Cooper’s Hawks around.

Cooper’s Hawks are primarily known for their diet of songbirds and are often seen in urban areas around bird feeders. At our feeding station, we have witnessed these hawks preying on Red-winged Blackbirds, European Starlings, and Mourning Doves.

For those who do not appreciate the “circle of life” in their yard, it is relatively easy to encourage these birds of prey to move on to other feeding grounds. One can take down their feeders for a few weeks to encourage them to look for food elsewhere, although it is common for them to return as soon as feeding birds resumes.

Visually, Cooper’s Hawks look very similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks, as both have a steely blue-gray appearance, a little black cap, and a rufous-colored chest. The best way to tell the difference between the two is by their size, as Cooper’s Hawks are larger than Sharp-shinned Hawks. However, it can be difficult to distinguish between them when they are airborne.

The most common sound a Cooper’s Hawk makes is an alarm call that sounds like “kuck, kuck, kuck” or “cak-cak-cak.” Their call is lower-pitched than that of the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

In contrast to many other birds, males are usually responsible for building the nest, while the female seems to sit back and make minor adjustments when necessary. Cooper’s Hawks can range in length from 13½ to 20 inches, have a weight of 8 to 24 ounces, and a wingspan of 24½ to 35½ inches. Their scientific name is Accipiter cooperii.

4. Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawks are elusive birds of prey that prefer to reside in large forests away from human settlements. These birds are often mistaken for Cooper’s Hawks, which look similar, but can be distinguished by their dark-colored head and deep red eyes. The underbody of a Northern Goshawk is typically a bluish-white to light gray with barring, while the upper body is blue-gray or brown.

Northern Goshawk Range Map

Northern Goshawks are widespread in the United States but are difficult to spot, especially in urban areas. Some individual birds migrate short distances during colder months, heading south until they can find sufficient food. Others remain in the same location throughout the year.

These raptors are closely related to both Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, but are larger and more aggressive. They are known to attack humans who get too close to their nests. Northern Goshawks emit a harsh “ca-ca-ca” sound when calling, and turn their heads slowly from side to side, giving the vocal effect of a ventriloquist.

Northern Goshawks are opportunistic hunters and consume a diverse range of prey, including insects, mammals, birds, and reptiles. Their length ranges from 16 to 27 inches, their weight ranges from 22 to 50 ounces, and their wingspan ranges from 35 to 50 inches. Their scientific name is Accipiter gentilis.

5. Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk Range Map

Red-shouldered Hawks are known for their distinct markings, including a barred rufous chest, mostly white underwings, a strongly banded tail, and, of course, visible red shoulders when perched. Unlike their Red-tailed Hawk counterparts, Red-shouldered Hawks are primarily forest dwellers and prefer woods with an open upper canopy, which allows them to hunt more efficiently. They are also commonly found in suburban areas where houses have been mixed into woodlands. These raptors primarily eat small mammals but will also feast on snakes, lizards, and amphibians when available.

Red-shouldered Hawk hunting in my backyard!

When hunting, Red-shouldered Hawks drop onto their prey directly from overhead, making their hunting style unique. They are known to hunt small mammals, including squirrels. It is common to hear a Red-shouldered Hawk before seeing one, as they have a loud call that sounds like “kee-ahh,” which is often repeated several times. In fact, I frequently see Red-shouldered Hawks in my backyard during the winter, hunting for squirrels.

Check out this video compilation of 25 failed hawk attacks at a bird feeding station.

You can witness the Red-shouldered Hawk’s unique hunting style in action in the video above, where a Red-shouldered Hawk tries to catch a squirrel in my backyard. Don’t worry, the hawk is unsuccessful. If you’re interested in hearing what a Red-shouldered Hawk sounds like, check out this video of their calls and sounds.

Red-shouldered Hawks measure 15-19 inches in length, weigh 1.1-1.9 lbs, and have a wingspan of 38-42 inches. Their scientific name is Buteo lineatus.

6. Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-winged Hawk Range Map

The Broad-winged Hawk is a small hawk species with a short and stocky body, making them well-suited to life in the forest. Although they are common in the United States, they are not often seen due to their preference for living in the deep woods away from humans.

During the summer, Broad-winged Hawks reside in the United States, but they migrate south to Central and South America for the winter. Their epic migrations each fall are one of their most notable features. It is estimated that the average bird travels over 4,000 miles 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, creating the awe-inspiring “kettles” that can be seen in the video above.

Broad-winged Hawks are perch and pounce hunters and typically sit high up on tree limbs, waiting to swoop down and capture small mammals, frogs, or toads. It is rare for these raptors to hunt while flying.

These hawks give a high-pitched whistle, typically lasting around 2-4 seconds, with a short first note and a long second one. Their scientific name is Buteo platypterus, and they have a length of 13.5-17.5 inches (34-44 cm), a weight of 16 oz (450 gm), and a wingspan of 33 inches (84 cm).

Overall, the Broad-winged Hawk is a fascinating species that migrates long distances and is well-adapted to life in the forest. The range map shows that they are found across North and South America, with a preference for grasslands, plains, and prairies.

7. Ferruginous Hawk

Ferruginous Hawks are the largest hawks in North America, with long broad wings and a wide gray, rusty, or white tail. These raptors have two color forms that you may observe, the light morph and the dark morph. The light morph birds have a rusty brown back and pale underparts, while 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.

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. These hawks will use trees, rock outcrops, ledges, haystacks, nest platforms, power poles, various other human-made structures, and the ground for nests.

Ferruginous Hawks have a fairly limited diet and rely mostly upon small mammals for food. Interestingly, they have multiple hunting strategies they deploy, including running or hopping on the ground after their prey. Snakes and bats are also part of their diet.

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. The Ferruginous Hawk range map shows that these birds occur only in North America, from southwestern Canada through the western United States and into northern Mexico.

Ferruginous Hawk Range Map

Arid, open countrySouthwestern Canada, western United States, and northern Mexico

Ferruginous Hawks are fascinating raptors that are well-adapted to life in the open deserts and prairies of the West. Their adaptability in nesting and hunting strategies, as well as their limited diet, make them a unique and important part of the ecosystem.

8. Harris’s Hawk

Harris’s Hawks are social birds that can be found in the southwest United States. They are known for their complex social hierarchies and 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.

Harris’s Hawks do not migrate and “own” a territory, sticking around all year. They are most commonly found 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.

Harris’s Hawk Range Map

Harris’s Hawks can be found in the southwest United States, including Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. They can also be found in parts of Central and South America.

Harris Hawks do not migrate.

Harris’s Hawks do not migrate and are non-migratory birds. They stick around all year in their territory.

Harris’s Hawks are medium-sized, with a length of 18-24 inches / 46-59 cm, a weight of 1.5-2.5 lbs. / 680-1130 gm, and a wingspan of 36-48 inches / 91-122 cm. Their scientific name is Parabuteo unicinctus.

9. Swainson’s Hawk

Swainson’s Hawks are a common sight in the western United States, often seen soaring or perched on fence posts, telephone poles, or trees in open areas. These hawks arrive in the US each April and spend their summers breeding and raising their young. Towards the end of August or beginning of September, they begin a long-distance journey to Argentina, covering around 6,000 miles which takes up to two months. They make this trip twice per year.

Swainson’s Hawk Range Map

As they migrate, 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. Here is a range map of Swainson’s Hawk:

Swainson's Hawk Range Map

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. They are 18-22 inches / 46-56 cm in length, weigh 24-48 oz / 680-1360 gm, and have a wingspan of 46-54 inches / 117-137 cm. The scientific name of the Swainson’s Hawk is Buteo swainsoni.

#10. Rough Legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk Range Map

During the summer months, Rough-legged Hawks breed and live on the Arctic tundra. However, in the winter months, they migrate south to the continental United States. 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 choose to live. These raptors are typically silent, except they make a mewing sound near the nest.

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.

The Rough-legged Hawk is about 18.5-23.5 inches (46-59 cm) in length, weighs around 25-49 oz (715-1400 gm), and has a wingspan of 52-54 inches (132-138 cm). Its scientific name is Buteo lagopus.

11. Gray Hawk

Gray Hawk Range Map

The Gray Hawk is a small tropical hawk that mostly lives in Mexico and Central America, making it hard to spot in the United States. However, they venture north into the United States, particularly in Southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, where they can find plenty of lizards to eat. Gray Hawks are not picky eaters and will eat almost all species of lizards.

Gray Hawks are patient hunters and are often found sitting in the canopy, watching for prey. They are difficult to spot, but their distinctive 3-note whistle (“kah-lee-oh”) can be heard as they look for mates and define territories.

The Gray Hawk measures 16-24 inches (40-61 cm) in length, weighs 14-17 oz (395-480 gm), and has a wingspan of 34-37 inches (87-93 cm). Its scientific name is Buteo plagiatus.

#12. Short-tailed Hawk

Short-tailed Hawks are small raptors that are mostly found in tropical regions of Central and South America. However, in the United States, they are primarily found in Florida, with a small population of around 500 individuals scattered throughout the state. Recently, there have been sightings of these hawks in the southwest near the Mexico-Arizona border.

Short-tailed Hawk Range Map

These hawks are not commonly seen by people as they prefer to stay out of sight by rarely perching out in the open. Unique for Buteo hawks, Short-tailed Hawks 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.

Short-tailed Hawks have a length of 15.5-17.5 inches (39-44 cm), a weight of 14-18 oz (390-520 gm), and a wingspan of 33-41 inches (83-103 cm). Their scientific name is Buteo brachyurus.

13. Zone-tailed Hawk

Zone-tailed Hawks are beautiful, sleek, black hawks that breed and raise their young in the southwestern United States. During the winter months, they migrate to southern Mexico and Central America. These 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. 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. However, since the 1990s, they have slowly been increasing their range northwards. The Zone-tailed Hawk range map shows that they are a raptor of arid foothills and canyons in the southwestern U.S. Their lightly barred flight feathers even create a two-toned effect similar to the vulture’s wing pattern. The average length of a Zone-tailed Hawk is 18-22 inches or 45-56 cm, and they weigh between 21.5-33 oz or 610-940 gm. Their wingspan ranges from 30-34 inches or 75-86½ cm, and their scientific name is Buteo albonotatus.

14. Common Black Hawk

Common Black Hawk Range Map

The Common Black Hawk is a coal-colored bird with a small white patch behind the bill and white bands on the tail. Their bright orange-yellow bill and legs stand out against their black bodies. These raptors 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 birds 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.

The Common Black Hawk measures 17-21 inches (43-53 cm) in length, weighs 22-46 oz (630-1300 gm), and has a wingspan of 50 inches (127 cm). Its scientific name is Buteogallus anthracinus.

15. White-tailed Hawk

We find White-tailed Hawks to be a stunning species of hawks, with their slate grey plumage and rusty shoulders. As their name suggests, they have a distinctive white tail with a black band at the very end.

White-tailed Hawk Range Map

White-tailed Hawks are commonly found in southern Texas, where they prefer open areas such as prairies, grasslands, and pastures. Interestingly, these birds have a unique habit of placing a single long stick on their nest, although the purpose of this behavior remains unknown.

These hawks primarily feed on mammals, and some songbird species have learned to use White-tailed Hawks as protection. Small birds seem to know that they won’t be preyed upon by these large birds of prey and rely on them to scare away other predators that do hunt them. For instance, Northern Mockingbirds are so confident in this strategy that they sometimes nest in the same bush as White-tailed Hawks.

When out in the field, listen for a high-pitched whine that lasts a few notes, followed by a series of repeated “ke” noises. White-tailed Hawks have a length of 17-24 inches (44-60 cm), a weight of 31-43 oz (880-1235 gm), and a wingspan of 46½-56 inches (118-143 cm).

The scientific name for White-tailed Hawks is Geranoaetus albicaudatus.

#16. Osprey

So, why include them on a list of common hawks in the United States?

As surprising as it may sound, Ospreys are not actually hawks or eagles. In fact, they have their own Family (Pandionidae) and Genus (Pandion), which sets them apart from all other birds of prey. However, Ospreys are often mistaken for hawks due to their similar appearance. They have also earned nicknames such as Sea Hawk, River Hawk, and Fish Hawk, which suggest their association with hawks.

Osprey Range Map

Ospreys are known for their unique diet, consisting of fish, which they catch with their specially adapted talons. Unlike other birds of prey, Ospreys have extremely curved talons that intersect when fully closed. This design allows them to hold onto slippery fish more effectively. In addition, their outer toe is reversible, which enables them to rotate the toe and have two in front and two in back, making them more efficient hunters. Only owls and Ospreys have this ability.

When hunting, Ospreys dive into the water to catch their prey, unlike eagles, which skim the surface. They hit the water hard and plunge right in to ensure a catch. Interestingly, they can take off while submerged and with a fish in their talons. Due to their specialized diet, Ospreys tend to live, breed, and raise their young around bodies of water. They mate for life and often use human-made nesting platforms. If you live near a large body of water, you can install a nesting platform to attract a pair of Ospreys.

If you’re near a large body of water, listen for the Osprey’s alarm call, which is a series of short, high-pitched whistles that descend in pitch. The sound has been compared to a teapot taken off a stove.

Ospreys have a length of 20-25.5 inches / 50-65 cm, weight of 3-4.4 lb. / 1.4-2 kg, and wingspan of 59-71 inches / 150-180 cm. Their scientific name is Pandion haliaetus.

17. Northern Harrier

Northern Harriers are one of the most unique hawks you will find in the USA!

When it comes to hunting, most hawks rely on their exceptional eyesight. However, Northern Harriers use their hearing to locate prey, which is very similar to owls. They have a disc-shaped face resembling an owl, making them a fascinating bird to observe.

If you want to spot a Northern Harrier, look for them in open grasslands, fields, or marshes. They are slim, long-tailed raptors that fly low and have a distinctive white rump.

Which hawks have you seen before in the United States?

Leave a comment below!

For more information about the range and habitat of different hawks in the United States, check out The Birds of the World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They provide range maps for each species, which show where they live.

Overall, Northern Harriers are a unique and fascinating bird to observe. Their hunting techniques and owl-like features make them stand out among other hawks in the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the most common hawk species found in the United States?

The most common hawk species found in the United States is the Red-tailed Hawk. These large raptors are often seen on long drives in the countryside, soaring in the sky or perched on a fence post.

How many different species of hawks are found in the United States?

There are at least seventeen different species of hawks found in the United States. These include the Broad-winged Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Goshawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and the Northern Harrier.

What are some identifying features of hawks?

Hawks are known for their sharp talons, hooked beaks, and keen eyesight. They have broad wings and are powerful fliers. Most species of hawks have brown or gray feathers, with some having distinctive markings on their faces or tails.

What distinguishes hawks from falcons?

Hawks are generally larger and more powerful than falcons. They have broader wings and shorter tails, which make them better suited for soaring and gliding. Falcons, on the other hand, have long, pointed wings and longer tails, which make them better at maneuvering and chasing prey in the air.

What are some small species of hawks found in the United States?

Some of the small species of hawks found in the United States include the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and the American Kestrel. These hawks are known for their agility and speed, and are often seen darting through trees and chasing small birds and mammals.

What is the range of the Yellow-tailed Hawk in the United States?

The Yellow-tailed Hawk is a species of hawk that is found primarily in Central and South America. While it is not commonly found in the United States, it has been known to occasionally venture into southern Texas and Arizona.

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