9 Types of Hawks You Should Know
Keep an eye on the sky. These stunning birds are worth scoping out. Learn how to identify 9 different types of hawks found in North America.
From agile forest hunters to soaring prairie fliers, hawks are diverse and beloved birds. While strong talons and sharp beaks are universal characteristics of these raptors, each species also fills a special niche. These are some different types of hawks you should get to know.
They may be frequent fliers at many backyard feeding stations across the continental United States, but Cooper’s hawks aren’t drawn in by the seed buffet—they’re actually hunting the birds at your feeders. This species is a nimble, midsized accipiter. These types of hawks specialize in snagging small birds directly out of the air after a surprise ambush. The red-eyed adults are blue-gray along the back with reddish barring on chest and belly, and yellow-eyed juvenile birds are heavily streaked.
Key ID Clues: Dark cap; rounded tail (compared to sharp-shinned)
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The small accipiters with a very similar look to Cooper’s hawks are known as sharp-shinned hawks. For most raptors, including sharp-shinned hawks, females are slightly larger than the males. This makes identifications especially tricky when you’re trying to distinguish between large female sharp-shinned hawks and small male Cooper’s hawks. Sharpies have more rounded heads and squarer tails than Cooper’s. Similar to Cooper’s, sharp-shinned hawks will also feed on backyard birds, but they tend to favor dense cover and are less likely to perch in the open. Look for them year-round in parts of the Northwest and Northeast.
Key ID Clues: Square tail; more rounded head (compared to Cooper’s)
The elegant northern harrier once went by the moniker of marsh hawk. The name was eventually changed to harrier to match up with the other similar long-winged and -tailed hawk species found around the world. These types of hawks show off facial disks similar to owls, which help them capture the sounds of mice and voles. Harriers hunt by cruising low over open fields and marshes, appearing throughout the year from the Northwest to the Great Plains. Bold white rump patches are a good identifying feature for flying harriers. Sometimes called “gray ghosts,” males are a blue dun color, while female and juvenile birds are brown.
Key ID Clue: Owl-like face
One of the most common hawks, red-tails can be seen across most of the United States. These buteos conspicuously perch in the open and are equally at home in urban settings or along rural roadside ditches. Widespread and highly variable in plumage, they can still be a tricky ID challenge. For example, the young birds of this species don’t even have red tails. Soaring red-tailed hawks look dark along the leading edge of the wings. Listen for the screaming call of this hawk—you’ll recognize it as one of the iconic sounds of the wild from many movies’ nature scenes.
Key ID Clues: A familiar shrill call; notable red tail
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The range of broad-winged hawks extends from eastern forests through central Canada. Wide tail bands aid in the identification of these compact raptors. They are most often encountered during massive migration movements, sometimes with thousands flying together. These huge groups soar as one in tight circles. More than 1 million broad-winged hawks migrate through Veracruz, Mexico, during the fall in what is known as the River of Raptors.
Key ID Clue: Wide black-and-white tail bands
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With their red barring along the chest, red-shouldered hawks look superficially similar to Cooper’s hawks when seen from below. The rufous red shoulder patch is usually visible on perched birds. East of the Missouri River, this species is a hawk of wet woodlands. A western population stretches from the Baja of Mexico to Washington and are often found in oak woodlots. Red-shouldered hawks are usually heard before they are seen. Listen for their keeyar, keeyar, keeyar calls.
Key ID Clue: Reddish shoulder patches
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Another soaring hawk, Swainson’s live in the western Plains. Although they feed chicks the usual vertebrate raptor prey, Swainson’s hawks predominantly eat insects after nesting season. Long-distance migrants, some Swainson’s move all the way from Alaska to Argentina. Less prone to migrate along natural features such as ridges and waterways, these types of hawks instead flock up by the tens of thousands. The migrating flocks of birds swirl southward. Swainson’s have dark feathering on the heads and along the trailing edge of the underwings.
Key ID Clue: Brown upper chest
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The rough-legged hawk is the buteo of winter for most people. These raptors breed along cliffs in the high Arctic and winter all across the United States—except for parts of the Southeast—and southern Canada. You can often see them briefly hovering in place before plummeting down on unsuspecting rodent snacks. Most rough-legged hawks have a broad belly band and large dark circular patches on the underwing. A few birds in what is known as a dark morph have very dark feathers and can look entirely black when perched.
Key ID Clue: Dark band across belly
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Rich rufous red shoulders, wing linings and legs offset the dark bodies of Harris’s hawks, giving them a dapper appearance. This species is a year-round resident of the dry Desert Southwest from Arizona to Texas and down into much of South America. They are the most communal of the different types of hawks, with family groups that often hunt cooperatively. The hawks circle a prey item and then flush it up for capture. Harris’s mostly eat rabbits and ground squirrels but can also take down birds and reptiles.
Key ID Clue: Yellow on face
Next, learn how to identify a great horned owl.