Types of Hawks in the United States: A Guide to North American Raptors


In the United States, hawks are important and interesting birds for bird watchers and nature lovers. These birds, known for their sharp eyesight and fast flying, are important as top hunters.

There are many types of hawks living in different places, each adapted to its environment. For example, the common Red-tailed Hawk is often seen flying over fields, while the Cooper’s Hawk quickly flies through forests to catch its prey. Each kind of hawk behaves differently.

Spotting and identifying hawks can be very enjoyable. It’s exciting to see a Red-tailed Hawk’s red tail or a Sharp-skinned Hawk at a bird feeder. Learning about these birds helps us enjoy nature more and also helps protect them.

As we live alongside these amazing birds, it’s important to understand how they live and act. This helps us make sure they survive and live well with us.

Key Takeaways

  • Hawks are crucial predators in the U.S., with a variety of species adapted to different environments.
  • Species like the Red-tailed Hawk are widespread, while others have more specific habitats.
  • Hawk identification and conservation efforts play a significant role in protecting their populations.

Hawks in the U.S.

Hawks are a prevalent group of birds of prey in North America, classified in the family Accipitridae. These raptors are admired for their keen eyesight and skillful hunting abilities.

In the United States, hawk species come in a variety of sizes and inhabit differing ecosystems across the nation.

Species Diversity

The United States serves as home to numerous hawk species. Notable among them are the Red-tailed Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, both easily spotted due to their adaptability to various habitats.

Other species, like the sharp-eyed Sharp-shinned Hawk, have a more specific range, often migrating to breed in the northern U.S. and Canada.

Identification Guide

Identification of these raptors can be thrilling. They recalled a time observing the distinct silhouette of a Swainson’s Hawk soaring high on the thermals over open fields.

Each hawk species boasts unique characteristics, such as the Red-tailed Hawk’s rusty tail or the Broad-winged Hawk’s robust body and distinctive banding.

Hawk - Identification Guide

Habitat and Migration

  • Open areas: Swainson’s Hawk
  • Well-wooded regions: Northern Goshawk
  • Variety of habitats: Red-tailed Hawk

They remembered trekking through dense woodlands, the domain of the stealthy Northern Goshawk, and marveling at its powerful flight. It should be noted that hawk migration patterns vary by species. Some, like the Sharp-shinned Hawk, exhibit long migrations, while others may be more stationary if the conditions allow.

Conservation Status

Hawk populations are considered an indicator of ecological health. Conservation efforts ensure these raptors thrive, securing the biodiversity of ecosystems within the United States.

Enthusiasts can contribute to conservation by educating others and promoting habitat protection.

Major Families of Hawks

In the United States, hawks are primarily categorized into three major families: Accipiters, Buteos, and Harriers. Each family has distinctive characteristics for successful adaptation to their environments and styles of hunting.


Accipiters are known for their skill in navigating dense forest areas, making them exquisite predators within these habitats. The Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus) is the smallest of this group, adept at pursuing small birds through thick cover.

In contrast, the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) is slightly larger and primarily hunts in wooded areas as well but has been known to venture into urban landscapes. The Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), the largest accipiter, showcases robust hunting capabilities that intimidate even larger quarries.

During a trip to the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, one might observe the agile flight of accipiters as they chase down their prey, an impressive demonstration of their mastery over other birds of prey in such environments.


Types of Hawks in the United States - everything you need to know

Buteos are characterized by their broad wings and robust bodies, designed for soaring on thermal currents while scanning for prey below. The Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) is renowned not only for its distinctive red tail but also for its versatility across diverse landscapes.

The lighter-built Swainson’s Hawk is notable for its long migrations, sometimes covering distances from North America to Argentina. Other members include the Rough-legged Hawk, typically seen perched in open fields during winter, and the Red-shouldered Hawk, which favors deciduous woodlands.

An encounter with a Buteo, such as witnessing them effortlessly floating on air currents over open fields, underscores the adaptations these birds of prey have for spotting and swooping down on rodents and other mammals below.


Harriers are unique among hawks with their pronounced facial disk, which aids in their hearing—a trait more commonly associated with owls. The Northern Harrier, also known as the marsh hawk, frequently patrols low over marshes and fields with slow, deliberate wingbeats.

Harriers have an impressive ability to pinpoint and capture rodents through dense vegetation—a testament to their specialized adaptations as predators. Their distinct hunting method—flying low over marshes and suddenly diving toward unwary prey—can sometimes be observed in wetlands across the country, exemplifying their role as persistently effective hunters in these environments.

Characteristic Traits of Hawks

Hawks exhibit a collection of distinctive traits which include diverse physical characteristics, varied behavioral patterns, and a wide range of habitats across North America. These raptors are notable for their sharp talons and keen eyesight, allowing them to be efficient predators in their respective environments.

Physical Attributes

Hawks possess strong beaks designed for tearing flesh, and their talons are sharp and powerful, crucial for grasping and subduing prey. The plumage of hawks can vary, with species like the Ferruginous hawks showing distinct color morphs, ranging from light to dark.

A hawk’s underbody is often lighter in color compared to the upper body, providing camouflage from prey below.

Behavioral Patterns

These birds of prey are acrobatic fliers and can execute high-speed dives during attacks on prey that include mammals, reptiles, insects, frogs, rodents, and fish. Hawks exhibit a variety of hunting strategies: some may surprise prey in a swift attack while others patiently observe before striking.

Seasonal migration is common, with many hawks moving to warmer areas during winter months, although some species are year-round residents.

Habitats and Distribution

Hawks are highly adaptable, occupying diverse habitats ranging from dense forest areas to open marshes and even backyards across the United States and Canada. They are widespread in North America, with their presence often noted by their soaring flight or perched high in trees.

Hawks’ habitats vary by species, with some preferring expansive woodlands while others thrive in mixed agricultural lands.

Region-Specific Hawk Species

The diversity of hawk species in the United States varies with geography, as some species are more adapted to certain regions than others. This section explores the resident and migratory hawks that are typically found within various parts of the country.

Hawks of the Northeast

In the Northeast, birdwatchers might often spot the sharp-shinned hawk and cooper’s hawk, particularly during their migrations. The red-tailed hawk is also a common resident, soaring above open fields and perching on roadside poles.

A birder once mentioned that late in the fall, they witnessed the majestic flight of a broad-winged hawk moving down the Appalachians in a ‘kettle’ — a term for a group of hawks circling together during migration.

Hawks of the Southeast

The Southeast is known for its broad range of habitats, and such variety supports a diversity of hawks. The red-shouldered hawk is a familiar sight in wooded areas, with its distinctive cry echoing through the forests.

The region is also home to the short-tailed hawk, especially in Florida, where a birdwatcher excitedly recounted their first encounter with this rare raptor as it glided over the Everglades.

Hawks of the Midwest

The Midwest’s open grasslands and abundant waterways provide an ideal environment for the red-tailed hawk, the most common hawk in the United States. Here, they share the skies with Swainson’s hawk, a migratory species that summer in the prairies before heading to South America for the winter.

A naturalist noted that seeing a Swainson’s hawk in the Midwest is often a sign summer is at its peak.

Hawks of the West

In the western United States, the variety of landscapes from coastal areas to mountains supports a range of hawks. Particularly notable is the ferruginous hawk, with a striking presence in the open country and often seen perched on fence posts or low ground. Included in this region’s avian roster is the rough-legged hawk, often found during winter months after flying south from the Arctic tundra.

Hawks of the Southwest

The warm climates and desert landscapes of the Southwest are uniquely suited for Harris’s hawk, known for being one of the few hawks that hunt cooperatively. Another specialist of this region is the gray hawk, primarily found in the riparian woodlands near the border with Mexico.

In certain areas, the elusive zone-tailed hawk can even be found mimicking the flight pattern of vultures, a strategy it uses to sneak up on unsuspecting prey. An experienced hiker once recounted their surprise upon spotting a zone-tailed hawk in the Grand Canyon, initially mistaking it for one of the vultures commonly seen riding the thermals.

Hawk Conservation and Human Interaction

Conservation efforts for hawks in the United States have become increasingly important as various species face habitat loss and other human-induced challenges. These birds of prey, which possess remarkable hunting skills and serve an integral role in the ecosystem, benefit from legal protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The act makes it unlawful to hunt, capture, kill, or sell hawks without proper authorization. One commonly observed practice by enthusiasts is creating backyard habitats to support local hawk populations.

This includes preserving native vegetation and ensuring a safe environment that is free from common threats such as pesticides and human disturbance. Providing food sources and nesting platforms can also encourage hawks to visit or reside in these tailored spaces.

Human interaction with hawks goes beyond creating backyard sanctuaries. Some people participate in birdwatching visits to habitats where these protected species are known to soar.

Education about hawks at nature centers and through community programs helps raise awareness about the importance of conservation efforts. Additionally, citizens can contribute to scientific research by reporting hawk sightings and behavior, enhancing the collective understanding of these birds.

Anecdotal reports suggest that hawks have shown notable adaptation to urban environments. One instance involved a Red-tailed Hawk building its nest on the ledge of a busy city building, indicating their ability to thrive despite urban sprawl.

Similarly, a birdwatcher once shared the delight of observing a Sharp-shinned Hawk navigate through a suburban area with surprising agility. The interaction between humans and hawks is pivotal for the continuation of conservation work.

Public support and active involvement can aid in safeguarding the future of these majestic creatures, ensuring they remain a vital part of North America’s wildlife tapestry.

Identifying Hawks in Your Backyard

Identifying hawks in your backyard can be a rewarding experience for birders. Recognizing these raptors involves observing their physical characteristics, calls, and behavior.

While eagles, osprey, kestrels, and falcons may also be spotted, hawks are more commonly found in the suburbs and residential areas. One birder noted that Red-tailed Hawks are often identifiable by their distinctive screech and robust size.

They observed this species perched atop telephone poles, scanning for prey. Another distinguishing feature is the adult’s brick-red tail, which is generally visible when the bird is in flight.

Suburban backyards can occasionally see sharp-skinned hawks, especially where bird feeders are present. They are smaller and have a more stealthy flying pattern. Their presence is often revealed not by sight but by the sudden absence of other birds—a behavior noted by a local bird enthusiast.

Cooper’s Hawks are also known for visiting backyard areas, identifiable by their longer tails and more deliberate flight among trees. An observer pointed out that these hawks have a characteristic flap-and-glide pattern and their calls are higher-pitched compared to other hawk species.

In identifying these birds, birders often rely on their calls—a distinct cackling for Cooper’s Hawks, for instance. Additionally, the silhouette of a raptor in flight—broad, rounded wings with a relatively short tail for buteos like Red-tailed Hawks—can be emblematic.

To accurately identify hawks in backyards, birders use a combination of these methods, enhancing their birdwatching experiences and contributing to local wildlife knowledge.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the smallest species of hawk found in the United States?

The smallest species of hawk in the United States is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. It can be distinguished by its slender body and short wings when compared to other hawks in its range.

How can one differentiate between a hawk and a falcon?

Hawks typically have broader, rounded wings and a more robust body form, while falcons possess long, pointed wings and a slim build. Falcons also tend to have a notable “tooth” on their beaks for dispatching prey.

What are the identifying characteristics of a typical brown hawk?

A typical brown hawk, such as the Red-tailed Hawk, often has a brown dorsal side and lighter underparts, with a band of streaks on their belly. Their namesake red tail is usually visible in adult specimens.

Which hawk species is the most common across various regions in the United States?

The Red-tailed Hawk is known for its widespread presence across various regions in the United States. Many birders recall their first hawk encounter as watching a Red-tailed Hawk soaring above highways and fields.

What bird species are commonly mistaken for hawks?

Many people often mistake the Northern Harrier for a hawk due to its predatory habits and flight style, but its distinct facial disc and low gliding flight over open fields set it apart.

What is the largest hawk native to the United States?

The Ferruginous Hawk holds the title of the largest hawk native to the United States. It is recognized by its large size, broad wingspan, and preference for hunting in open terrain.

Final Words

In the rich avian landscape of the United States, hawks stand out as both symbols of natural beauty and ecological importance. These raptors, known for their sharp vision and agile flight, play a crucial role as top predators in various ecosystems.

The diversity of hawk species, each adapted to specific habitats, showcases nature’s complexity and adaptability. From the common Red-tailed Hawk to the elusive Cooper’s Hawk, each species contributes uniquely to the ecological balance.

Their identification and conservation are not just hobbies but essential acts that contribute to our understanding and preservation of these magnificent birds. As we continue to share our environment with hawks, it becomes imperative to appreciate their role in nature and ensure their protection, highlighting the delicate balance between human activity and wildlife conservation.

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