5 Common Types of Hawks

common types of hawks

Hawks are some of the most common birds of prey known for their sharp talons and strong sense of hearing. Their beaks are sturdy and sharp enough to pierce and kill prey instantly.

The idiomatic expression “hawk-eyed” proves that these birds are some of the most vigilant, observant, and watchful.

However, for most of us, distinguishing between a hawk, an eagle, and a falcon is a hassle. Besides, the word “hawk” is sometimes used in a broader sense to describe birds that are not hawks.

For example, the osprey is also called “fish hawk. Similarly, the peregrine falcon also has “duck hawk” as a moniker.

Therefore, you need to understand some color differences, body sizes, and habitats to identify and differentiate types of hawks.

Physical Description and Adaptation of Hawks

Hawks’ body sizes vary and understanding the variance can help you easily tell which species you’ve spotted. Some types of hawks, such as the sharp-shinned hawk, can be as small as 11-15 inches (29-37cm). Others, like the red-tailed hawk, can measure over 22 inches (56 cm).

The weight is also relative to the hawk species, but you should expect an average of 3 pounds, translating to 1 and a half kilograms.

With small size comes a small wingspan between 23 and 28 inches (58 and 68 cm) for the small hawk varieties and 40 -50 inches (100-150 cm) for the large ones like the red-tailed hawk.

Whatever the size, hawks’ wings are sturdy to aid in an easy and swift flight, which can reach 150mph. When taking flight, hawks flap their wings rapidly and let the momentum carry them forward after they soar.

At great heights, hawks leverage their excellent senses, especially for vision and hearing, making them see eight times more than humans. Besides, hawks can differentiate colors more accurately as they have four color receptors in their sharp eyes.

Once they spot prey, they deploy their sharp talons and curved hooked beaks to grab and tear the flesh quickly and efficiently.

When they plan to migrate, hawks accumulate fat for nourishment and sustenance before departure. Normally, preparation depends on the destination with those headed for long-distance trips start planning earlier than those headed for short distances. During the exodus, these birds flock together as a survival tactic.

Hawks Behavior and Lifespan

The most studied behavior of the different types of hawks regards their hunting techniques and migration. These birds are diurnal and prefer hunting at the onset of dusk. You will see them surveying across treetops or glued on poles, looking for prey.

Hawks hunt by leveraging their speed and try to outmaneuver their prey and prevent any escape.

Female hawks lay about five eggs annually, and with the help of a male, they nurture the fledgling till they hatch. The parents also feed juveniles until they can fly, which takes at least six weeks.

Common diet for hawks include squirrels, snakes, rabbits, mice, grasshoppers, lizards, doves, lizards, and crickets.

An average hawk can live up to 15 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity.

Common Types of Hawks

Hawks are part of the Accipitridae family with over 200 species, including kites and vultures. Below is a list of five common hawk breeds you will likely spot across states. 

1. Cooper’s Hawk

coopers hawk a common types of hawks

The backyard feeding station is probably the most convenient place to spot several Cooper’s hawks. These birds are frequent fliers of the stations, not for the seed buffet but for the small birds at your feeders.

They are nimble and midsized, so it takes no time to ambush and subdue the prey. Their agile body size enables them to specialize in ambushing and snagging birds directly from the air.

Adult cooper’s hawks are red-eyed and have a blue-gray color along the back and a touch of reddish barring around the belly and neck. The juveniles are heavily streaked and yellow-eyed.

Some key identification characteristics include the dark cap and a more rounded tail than the sharp-shined species discussed below.

2. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

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The sharp–shinned hawk, also known as the Sharpie, is normally mistaken for Cooper’s hawk thanks to their similar characteristics. Since most raptors have a bigger female than a male, it gets even trickier to distinguish between a male cooper’s hawk and a female sharp-shinned hawk.

Sharpies also feed on backyard birds like Cooper’s hawks, but it may take a while to see one perch at your feeding station. They are less likely to perch in the open and always hover in densely covered places.

The most common places to locate sharp-shinned hawk species are in the Northwest and Northeast.

Some key identification clues include more rounded heads and square tails than the Cooper’s.

3. Red-Tailed Hawk

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Red-tails are among the commonest and largest hawks built to soar, with a little over four-foot wingspans. Unlike the Sharpies, red-tailed hawks perch in the open and seem comfortable with urban life and rural roadside ditches.

These types of hawks are widespread, and their plumage varies greatly, making them challenging to identify. For instance, the juveniles lack the red tails that give this hawk species its name. Besides, a red-tailed hawk soaring at a standard height will appear dark along the wing edges.

The only sure way to recognize this hawk breed is through its screaming call and, of course, the notable red tails, especially when it perches.

4. Northern Harrier

northern harrier common types of hawks

The northern harrier hawk varieties were formerly marsh hawks but later renamed Northern Harrier to classify all the hawk species around the world with similar long wings and tails.

The unique characteristic of these birds is the facial disk akin to what we get in owls. These disks help the northern harrier capture its prey, comprising voles and mice.

You can spot these types of hawks cruising low over open fields and marshes from the Northwest to the Great Plains.

Besides the owl-like facial disks, bold white rump patches are another critical identifier of a flying harrier.

Females and juveniles don a brown color while males don a blue dun color.  

5. Swainson’s Hawk

swainsons hawk a common type of hawk

The Swainson’s hawk is another soaring species commonly found in the western plains. Their favorite prey are insects, but they may also hunt other vertebrate raptor prey to feed to their chicks during nesting.

These types of hawks are known for their long-distance migration as they are known to cross into Argentina and Alaska in search of pasture and better climate. The migration involves flocking up by tens of thousands of individuals and heading southwards. One key identifier for the Swainson’s hawk is the dark feathering on the head and under the wings.