Hawk ID Tips

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!

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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!

Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten is the executive editor of Birds & Blooms. She's been with the brand in various roles since 2007. She has many favorite birds (it changes with the seasons), but top picks include the red-headed woodpecker, Baltimore oriole and rose-breasted grosbeak. Her bucket list bird is the painted bunting.