5 Essential Hawk Identification Tips for Birders

Use expert tips and a helpful chart to improve your hawk identification skills. Plus, learn about the common types of hawks you may spot while birding.

While I was at the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival, 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 kestrelCourtesy Carol Spry
American kestrel

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 hawk identification tips I learned at the workshop.

hawks

1. Wing Shape

Look at the chart above to help you with hawk identification in flight. The shape of the wings can offer cues to which family your raptor is in. Accipiter wings have a rounded or pointy shape. And the buteos’ wings are straight and quite broad.

2. Tail Shape and Length

In addition to the wings, the tail can also help with hawk identification in flight. On the chart, look how short and stubby the tail of the buteos are, compared to the longer and rounded tail of accipiters.

3. Wing 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 on the hawk identification chart. Eagles, buteos and accipiters have them, making the wing look almost like a hand.

4. Bird Shape in Flight

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). Learn more tips on how to identify Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks.

5. Rump Patch

A Northern harrier 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 the bird is flying over head. This is a good way to identify northern harriers quickly.

Common Types of Hawks

Eagles

bald eagle, golden eagle

Meet the two types of eagles in North America.

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

Next, check out the best hawk watching tips and hotspots during raptor migration.

Kirsten Schrader
Kirsten is the content director 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.