While there are more than 200 species of hawks across the world, there are approximately 25 species in the United States currently. This article will introduce you to some of these species.
Hawks are woodland birds which belong to the order Accipitriformes, and are well-known for their sharp vision and hunting skills. Based on their hunting skills and their innovative feeding routines, hawks have been touted as one of the most intelligent bird species.
Given below are all the types of commonly known hawks. While there are some falcons which are commonly known as hawks, there are certain differences between hawks and falcons, and the two shouldn’t be confused. The main difference is that they belong to different orders: falcons belong toFalconiformes, while hawks belong toAccipitriformes. Some hawks, like the Red Tailed, Swainson’s, Rough Legged, Ferruginous, Red Shouldered, Northern Harrier, Cooper’s, and the Broad Winged Hawk, have now been classified asAccipitriformes, while earlier they were classified as falcons. Although this classification is yet to be accepted world wide, I’ve included them in the list anyway.
Species of Hawk
Physical Attributes: The broad-winged hawk is usually 13 – 18 inches in size, with a wing span of almost 40 inches, and their tails have evenly spaced black and white stripes. The females are slightly larger than the males. The distinctive feature of this species is that they have tapered wings, which are broad and short. Their undersides, meaning their belly and the underside of their wings, are pale in color with distinctive copper color bands.
General Information: These cat-like predators and long distance migratory birds belong to the genus Buteo. Some sub-species do not migrate, but these are the minority. They are forest birds, and even during migration, they prefer to rest and roost in forested areas. They are found mainly in the eastern part of North America. They breed in spring. During summer they stay put, while for the winter months they migrate to the south. They prefer to sit and wait for their prey, instead of scouting around for it. The broad-winged hawk eats insects, small birds and reptiles.
Physical Attributes: The male is around 14 – 18 inches in size, while the female is 16 – 20 inches. The eastern hawks are bigger than the western hawks, and while juveniles have yellow eyes, adults have red. Their upper sides are dark brown as compared to their pale underparts, and their bellies have black stripes. The tails of the adults are bluish gray with black bands, while the young ones have brown tails with dark bands. Birdwatchers who have seen them in flight, describe them asflying crosses.
General Information: Cooper’s hawks are monogamous, and breed once a year. The male follows an elaborate courtship ritual to attract the female. They feed on small creatures like hare, frogs, lizards, snakes, small birds, etc. They kill their prey by either squeezing it to death, or drowning it. While earlier they were uncommon in urban areas, now they are often seen there, since it’s easier for them to hunt in these areas, because of the availability of prey.
Physical Attributes: The northern goshawks are characterized by their long tails. The males are 18 – 22 inches in size with a wing span of 35 – 40 inches, while the females are 22 – 25 inches in size with a wingspan of 44 – 50 inches. Young ones everywhere have pale yellow eyes, while the eyes of adults in North America are deep red, and those in Europe and Asia are orange. While the young ones are dark brown on the upper sides and have bars on their underside, the adults have gray upper sides with bars on their underside. Adults in Asia are sometimes white on the underside. The females are considerably larger and heavier than the males.
General Information: They are pretty private birds and are very territorial, aggressively guarding their territories. They are stealthy hunters and surprise their prey, which is mainly birds and small animals. They breed in spring, and the chicks stay with their parents till they are almost a year old.
Physical Attributes: These hawks are generally 18 – 30 inches in size, and have a wide wingspan of around 42 – 44 inches. Harris hawks are divided into 3 sub species, P. u. superior, P. u. harrisi, and P. u. unicinctus. They are beautiful to look at, with their rich chestnut colored shoulders, deep brown plumage, yellow legs, and yellow cere. They have stripes on their wings and thighs, and have white tipped tails. Juvenile hawks are lighter than the adults, with undersides that are buff colored and streaked with brown stripes.
General Information: Harris hawks are unique in the characteristic of being co-operative while hunting. They are the only species of hawk which hunt in packs. They are also the most social hawks, hence are very popular with humans as trainees! They usually hunt small birds and mammals, but since they fly in groups, they sometimes catch big prey as well. They build nests in small shrubs. Juveniles stay on for as long as 3 or more years, sometimes even taking care of the newer broods.
Physical Attributes: They are 17 – 22 inches in size, and have a wingspan of 38 – 47 inches. The upper sides of adult males are gray, and so is their breast, while their rump is white. As for the females, they are brown on top, with streaked and light brown undersides and have upper tail converts which are white. The wings are almost gray, except for the tips which are black. Juveniles are similar to females in looks, and also have a buffed underside with brown streaks running over it. When flying low, they hold their wings in a ‘V’, which is typical of all hawks.
General Information: Commonly known as Marsh Hawk, this bird was first classified in the order Falconiformes, but has now been put into the order Accipitriformes. Northern Harriers prefer open areas as their habitat. They nest on the ground. They tend to make a lot of noise when they are above their hunting grounds, and hunt using the element of surprise. Their prey is usually small birds and animals. They have become rare, due to illegal persecution and hunting.
Physical Attributes: As with the other species, the females are larger, being 19 – 23 inches long, as compared to the males which are 17 – 23 inches in size. Juvenile red-shouldered hawks are characterized by crescent markings on their wings, and by their long legs. The adults have pale undersides, with reddish stripes. Their chest and shoulders are reddish in color and the head is a shade of brown. The stripes/ bars on the wings of adults are more prominent than in juveniles. There are 5 sub species of red-shouldered hawks – B. l. lineatus, B. l. extimus, B. l. texanus, B. l. elegans, B. l. alleni.
General Information: For breeding, these hawks prefer wooded areas which are located around water bodies. They have different hunting techniques – in clear areas they hunt using the element of surprise, while in wooded areas, they swoop down on their unsuspecting prey. Some areas are seeing a decline in population of red shouldered hawks, but it’s pretty stable overall.
Physical Attributes: They range in size from 50 – 54 inches, and have a wingspan of around 52 inches. They have a light colored head, while their tail is white with black tips. Juveniles have tails which are more brown compared to the adults. Like other species of hawks, the adults have dark upper sides, and pale undersides, with a comparatively darker belly consisting of patches. One of the most noticeable features of the rough-legged hawk, is that their legs are feathered till their toes. They too, have dark morphs and light morphs, just like ferruginous hawks.
General Information: They often prefer open forests, barren countryside, or the tundras as their habitat. They breed either in trees or on cliffs. Wintering is usually done in open grasslands, and sometimes in cultivated areas. They hunt small mammals, birds, and large insects. This breed of hawk is famous for its ability to hover – they hunt from elevated heights by diving onto their prey after spotting it.
Physical Attributes: They are similar in size to red-tailed hawks, i.e., 17 – 22 inches, with a wingspan of 48 – 60 inches. They are slender birds, and are classified as light and dark morphs. Light morphs have brown upper sides and white undersides, with a red spot on the chest. They have a distinctive white patch on their necks just under their beaks, and the under-wings are light with linings, and are darker toward the tips. They have 6 tiny bands and 1 wide band, on their grayish-brown tails. Juveniles are similar, but with pale mottling/ patches on dark areas and vice-versa. Dark morphs too, are similar, but they have a light patch on their tail.
General Information: This territorial species stays in N. America and migrates to S. America during winters. They prefer open countryside like grasslands and deserts, as their habitat. They are also known asGrasshopper Hawks, because their favorite food is grasshoppers. This species has been listed as ‘threatened’ in some states, like California.
Physical Attributes: The red-tailed hawks are 18 – 22 inches in size, and their wingspan is around 42 – 58 inches. There are 14 sub species of the red-tailed hawk, and they vary in appearance. They are classified as light, dark, and intermediate/ rufus morphs. The general appearance is a dark back and a comparatively lighter belly, with a dark brown band across it of vertical stripes. In keeping with the name, the tail is red on the upper side, and pink on the underside, and it is short and broad. The cere, legs and feet, are yellow in color.
General Information: Red-tailed hawks have a wide range of habitats, varying from coastal regions to tropical rain-forests. They hunts small mammals, birds and reptiles. They are monogamous birds, and are also extremely popular in falconry. They hunt by swooping, or flying low after their prey. Their feathers are considered sacred by a few N. American tribes, and are used in religious ceremonies. But the possession of their feathers and tails is now regulated by the Eagle Feather Law.
Physical Attributes: Males are 9 – 12 inches in size with a wingspan of 20 – 24 inches, while the females are 11 – 15 inches in size with a slightly wider wingspan of 23 – 27 inches. While for all adults, the cere and legs are yellow and the tail is grayish, the rest of the appearance varies according to the groups, which are: A. (s.) chionogaster – has white undersides and dark upper sides, A. (s.) ventralis – gray upper sides and tawny-buff barred undersides, A. (s.) erythronemius – dark upper sides and rufus streaked undersides, andNominate Group – dark gray upper sides and white undersides with rufus/ tawny bars. All adults have black beaks, short and broad wings, and squarish tails which are gray or white tipped.
General Information: They prefer forest areas with broad leaved trees, and higher altitudes. They are very rarely found at lower altitudes i.e. sea levels. They hunt by surprising their prey and capturing them. The males hunt smaller prey as compared to the females. Males usually go for small birds like sparrows, and females will hunt larger birds, like flickers. Other prey includes snakes, lizards, and insects. They are secretive breeders, because they want to avoid predation of their eggs and young ones.
Physical Attributes: Ferruginous hawks range in size from 20 – 28 inches, with a wingspan between 45 – 60 inches. Based on color, there are two varieties of Ferruginous hawks – light morphs and dark morphs. The dark morphs, as the name suggests, are dark brown all over, with a few light patches on their wings. The light morphs on the other hand, are dark on the upper side, and pale on the underside, like on the belly and the underside of wings. Their tails are usually white and broad, although some do have rusty or gray tails. They have a distinctive dark streak on their head that extends behind their eyes, and since their undersides are light, their dark legs stand out and form a distinctive ‘V’ shape when they are flying.
General Information: This species of hawk breeds from March/April to May/June, and both male and female participate in incubation. They are often confused with eagles when in flight, because they soar and glide like them. They prefer arid areas for their habitat, generally avoiding forests and cliffs. They hunt small reptiles, birds, animals, insects, and have been known to exhibit various hunting strategies. Once listed as endangered, these birds are steadily rising in number.
Although there are many more varieties of hawks, the ones listed above are the most widely known. The numbers of some of these species were dwindling because of the use of pesticides in farms, illegal hunting activities, and destruction of their natural habitats. However, they are now stabilizing, and most of them have now been listed as an area of least concern.