Hawk ID Tips


While I was at the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival this past weekend, there was major chatter about a Swainson’s hawk spotted in the area, which excited all of us birders! But as I wondering how the heck people knew what it looked like and was planning which field trips to attend on Saturday, I came across the description of a hawk identification workshop. It said, “Struggling to separate a sharp-shinned hawk from a Cooper’s? Amazed when a bald eagle is spotted high in the sky where you see nothing?” YES and YES, I thought!


American kestrel taken by photogrl2 and submitted to our photo challenge.

Unfortunately for us, birds of prey don’t usually strike a lovely pose like this American kestrel (above), giving us the opportunity to make an identification at eye level. You can’t really rely on field marks, colors and size when you’re looking at the bright sky and the birds are SO far away. Here are a few things I learned at the hawk identification workshop.


1. Wing shape. The shape of the wings can offer cues to which family your raptor is in. Notice the wings of an accipiter have a rounded or pointy shape to them. And the buteos are straight and quite broad.

2. Tail shape and length. In the silhouettes above, look how short and stubby the tail of the buteos are, compared to the longer and rounded tail of accipiters.

3. Feathers. If you’re unsure if you’re looking at a falcon, look for the LACK of fringed feathers at the edge of the wings. Eagles, buteos and accipiters have them, making it look almost like a hand.

4. Fun tip. Having trouble deciding between the accipiters? A Cooper’s hawk looks like a “flying cross” (a larger head, rounded tail) and a sharp-shinned hawk looks like a “flying capital T” (a small head).

5. Northern harrier. This bird has a very distinguishable and commonly seen from the field white rump patch. It’s large enough that you can actually see it as its flying over head. And it’s a good way to identify northern harriers quickly.

And for reference, here’s the breakdown of common hawks.

Eagles: bald eagle, golden eagle

Buteos: red-tailed hawk, rough-legged hawk, broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk

Accipiters: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk

Falcons: American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon

Do you have any tips for identifying hawks? I’m no pro, and I’d love to hear the ways you identify hawks in the air!

  1. KirstenKirsten (Editors' Blog) says

    You’re welcome, Cheri! I found that even that simple silhouette diagram is helpful. Good luck with your IDs!

  2. Linda B. says

    Thank you so much! I am just a backyard bird fan, but I am always wondering what kind of bird is flying overhead. This REALLY helps!

  3. Geordie Daneliuk says

    An eagle’s wing’s appear long for its body compared to the buteos. Out here in the prairies the most common buteo in the eastern part where I live tends to be the red-tailed hawk.In the case of adults,you can usually catch a glimpse of the rusty colour of the upper side of the tail as the bird soars. While we only see rough-legged hawks during migration,they have a habit of “marking time”,so to speak,by beating their wings without forward motion,as if they are suspended on a string. With accipiters,a Cooper’s hawk’s tail is more rounded than the Sharp-shinned,and appears almost twice as large.

  4. Judith Blackman says


    Your hawk silhouettes are a very helpful way of identification.
    My home in WA State is set at the top of a steep wooded hillside, giving a wonderful view of red tail hawks, gliding beautifully on the airways.

    Having grown up in the country, my Father taught me to spot them and it has been a lifelong pattern. Since his Mother was 1/2 Cherokee, I suspect that is where it started.

    Thank you for the identification tips.

    Judith Blackman

  5. Robin Madsen says

    We were having trouble identifying a hawk visitor to our backyard. We only knew it was a juvenile “something”. Finally, after looking at many photos, we decided it was an immature Cooper’s hawk – the tail bands are broader on this hawk than similar species.

  6. Dan Kiser says

    Ok, you baited me and said you were going to show tips on how to ID hawks. Then when when I select the site you’re showing wing spands between eagles and smaller birds of prey, no mention about hawks. What gives?

  7. Roxanne Busby says

    Thanks for this article. We have a large bird…we’ve figured out now is a Buteo….nabbing our squirrels. He has such a large wing span. Yesterday as I stepped off the patio he swooped right in front of me…coming from a top the house, I think. It happened so fast I didn’t get a good look at markings….just a big brown bird! It sure rattled me for a few minutes!

  8. Peggy Enquist says

    Thanks for the tips but you left out Turkey Vultures. We see a lot of them in my neck of the woods and from below, I can’t tell them from the eagles????

    • Joshua Venegas says

      Ms. Enquist, I’m not that much of a bird expert, but we have a lot of these vultures where I live in SC. I hear the vultures have wings that are bent back more, you can see this from below. They are said to have a v-shaped wingspan, as opposed to the straight one you can see in this article. They also circle lazily a lot more than eagles do. Hope this helps!

  9. Robert Barry says

    I have excellant pictures of my Cooper Hawk that I feed every morning – for 4 years now I could send it to you!

  10. Joshua Venegas says

    I just saw a large falcon-looking bird that looked like it was flying like a dove. I’m sure it wasn’t, I could see the wingspan was much too big, and it had a hawk’s features. It also had ‘finger-like’ feathers on the wings. Any ideas?

  11. Linda Scher says

    Two brown birds fighting/mating(?) in midair soared downward in front of my fast moving car. Separating just before smashing into the windshield, one flew upward and away while the. other’s back and. wings spread out inches from the glass! One band. of black “V” markings spead across its back from wing tip to wing tip.Both. birds were brown, about the size of crow. The wing shape was like that of a falcon. Flew off into the Wisconsin farmland. south Wisconsin farmland. Any idea what these gorgeous birds were? Thank you!

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