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18 Types of Hawks in the United States That You Can See

Hawks, Ospreys and Kites - Bird Family

Hawk identification may prove rather challenging. Several species have juvenile and adult plumages and sometimes a dark and light morph.

Luckily, even if you can’t tell which species it is by some characteristics, such as their plumage, then they can be identified by various other factors, such as their range, type of flight, and vocalizations.


Types of Hawks, Ospreys, and Kites

Hawks are birds of prey and avid hunters. It’s not uncommon to see one swooping down to catch squirrels or rodents and larger prey like rabbits. However identifying hawks can be quite a challenge.

A good approach to identifying types of hawks is to start by determining what it is not. Begin by checking its seasonal range and narrowing down the possibilities from there.

Let’s see closer.



In North America, Accipiters, also known as bird hawks, consist of three species: the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Northern Goshawk. These raptors are commonly observed hunting other birds throughout forests and woodlands across most of North America.

Known for their agile flight, they possess narrow tails, and short and broad wings, and fly with short, rapid wingbeats that are occasionally interrupted by a glide.

Identifying these Accipiters can be a challenging task, especially when it comes to distinguishing between juveniles and the Sharp-shinned Hawk and Cooper’s Hawk, as they have strikingly similar appearances. However, the Northern Goshawk stands out from the group with its slightly more distinct features, making it relatively easier to identify from the bunch.

Therefore, differentiating between these species requires a keen eye and attention to detail. Size is often the clearest factor in identifying hawks, but it requires good estimation skills. We’ve gathered some additional ways to help you identify them.


Sharp-shinned Hawk

Accipiter striatus

  • Range: Year-round in the eastern and western US. Birds that breed in the northern part of their range (Alaska through Canada to the southern US) fly to the southern US and Central America for the winter.
  • Length: 9-15 inches
  • Wingspan: 27-27 inches

Sharp-shinned Hawks prefer to live in dense conifer or mixed forests but can also be seen in open deciduous woodlands and thickets. During the breeding season, they inhabit dense forests with closed canopies whereas in winter they can be found in semi-open forested or brushy areas, including suburban areas with bird feeders.

Sharp-shinned Hawks have a slaty bluish-gray back, dark head, and rust-colored horizontal barring on their white chest. They have short, broad, and rounded wings, and long barred tails with a white squared or slightly rounded tip. Juveniles are brown above and white below with thick brown or reddish vertical streaking on their undersides.

Related: What do hawks eat?

Of the three, they are the smallest but appear to have the longest wings relative to their body size. Their heads are round and appear smaller than those of others. They flap their wings more rapidly than others and may appear unsteady in windy conditions. When flying, their head doesn’t always go beyond the “wrists” of their wings.

The streaking on juveniles is less defined, appearing blurred and teardrop-shaped. However, juveniles have browner cheeks and appear more uniformly brown above than Cooper’s Hawk. When perched, their tails may look notched.

The females are significantly larger than the males of the same species. Female Sharp-shinned is about the same size as male Cooper’s. Male Sharp-shinned is about the size of a Blue Jay. Their typical call is a frantic high-pitched kik-kik-kik.


Cooper’s Hawk

Accipiter cooperii

cooper's hawk
  • Range: Year-round in most of the US. Birds that breed in southern Canada and the northernmost US fly to Central America for the winter.
  • Length: 14-20 inches
  • Wingspan: 24-39 inches

Cooper’s Hawks inhabit various and slightly more open forests and woodlands. They can also be seen in well-wooded suburbs. You can meet them in deciduous and mixed forests.

Cooper’s Hawk looks nearly identical to the Sharp-shinned Hawk. Adults have a slate gray back, dark head, and red barring on their white chest. Juveniles have brown upperparts and white underparts with strong brown streaking. Cooper’s Hawks have long barred tails with white, rounded tips.

Compared to the Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawks are larger, although female Sharp-shinned Hawks are about the same size as male Cooper’s.

Their heads are more squared and have a capped look. The barring on adults tends to end somewhat higher than on Sharp-shinned Hawks and it appears finer and more regular. Juveniles are more finely and sharply streaked and have relatively thicker legs.

In flight, Cooper’s Hawks follow the same general flight pattern of flap-flap-glide. However, Cooper’s tend to fly with more deliberate and powerful wingbeats and have longer glides in between. Their most common call is a 2-5 seconds-long loud and grating cak-cak-cak.


Northern Goshawk

Accipiter gentilis

Northern Goshawk (Juvenile)

© Alan D. Wilson

  • Range: Year-round residents in Alaska, most of Canada, and the western US. Can winter in other parts of the US but generally not in the southeastern US.
  • Length: 18-27 inches
  • Wingspan: 35-50 inches

The Northern Goshawk is the largest of the three Accipiters and easier to identify. It is not as common as the other two species and not commonly found in backyard or park habitats. They prefer mixed forests.

Adults have a dark slate-gray back, with a finely streaked white-and-gray breast. The pale eyeline over the eye extends back and broadens. Juveniles have a brown back, pale underparts with heavy streaks. The tail is rounded and banded.

Related: Best Bird Apps For Identification

Northern Goshawks resemble Buteos when in flight since they appear larger and more powerful than the two other Accipiters. However, you can recognize it’s the Northern Goshawk by its rather long tail.

They still follow the general Accipiter flight pattern but their wingbeats are slower and their flight is more direct and purposeful. Juveniles are also easier to identify. Their backs are speckled with white and they have a pale stripe above the eye.

Their common calls include a drawn-out kreey-a and a rapid ki-ki-ki-ki call.



Buteos, known as “soaring hawks,” have long and broad wings but short tails. These birds of prey are often seen soaring overhead or perched prominently on tree edges or roadsides, making them familiar sights. Depending on the species, they can have either one or many color morphs.

Buteos employ various hunting techniques, including swooping down from high perches or surprising prey with fast stoops from the sky.

While they mainly prey on small mammals, they also take small birds, reptiles, and even insects when the chance arises. They are often observed soaring or perching on higher spots. Let’s see what the most common types of hawks are out there.


Common Black Hawk

Buteogallus anthracinus

Common Black Hawk

Common Black Hawk

  • Range: Rare in the US. Found in west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona during the breeding season.
  • Length: 17-22 inches
  • Wingspan: 46 inches

These black hawks are quite rare in North America. Where their range extends into the southernmost US, they almost always inhabit wooded areas near water, such as wooded streams, freshwater swamps, marshes, and riparian forests in deserts and canyons.

Adult Common Black Hawks are slaty black or very dark sooty gray overall. Their short tail is black and has a single broad white band and a white tip. Juveniles have spotting and streaks on their dark brown upperparts and dark blotches on their buff to whitish underparts.

They have broad and long wings and juveniles have black wingtips, many dark narrow bands on their wings and tail, and pale panels on their outer wings. Immatures can be strongly mottled in black and buff.

Can be confused with Zone-tailed Hawks, but Common Black Hawks are larger and have fewer white bars on their tail. They can also be recognized by their high-pitched and squeaky klee call that they repeat a few times.


Harris’s Hawk

Parabuteo unicinctus

Harris's Hawk
  • Range: Year-round residents throughout their range. In the US, it is limited to south and west Texas and parts of New Mexico and Arizona.
  • Length: 18-23 inches
  • Wingspan: 40-47 inches

Harris’s Hawks can be found in open dry country and semi-open desert lowlands. In the US, they’re most common in mesquite brush in New Mexico and Texas and the saguaro cactus desert in Arizona.

They can also be found in river woods, and urban and suburban areas because of easy access to food and water. These dark brown hawks often hunt and breed cooperatively. They fly low and pursue their prey around brushes, often guiding it toward other members of the hunt.

Adults are dark brown overall with reddish-brown patches on their shoulders and thighs. In flight, you can see that they have a dark underside and reddish-brown wing linings and thighs.

Their tail is black with a white base and rump and a white band at the tip. Immatures are blotched with variable amounts of white on their bellies and underwings and can appear much lighter than adults.

The warm reddish-brown shoulder patches, wing linings, and thighs are an excellent indicator that it is a Harris’s Hawk. Their call is an angry and grating screech that lasts about 1-3 seconds.

Harris’s Hawks can be confused with Common Black Hawks, Northern Harriers, and immature White-tailed Hawks.

  • Common Black Hawks have broader wings and shorter tails.
  • Northern Harrier has longer and narrower wings and lacks the white band at the end of the tail.
  • Immature White-tailed Hawks have longer, more pointed wings and shorter tails.
  • All of them lack the reddish-brown shoulder patches, thighs, and wing linings Harris’s Hawks have.


Zone-tailed Hawk

Buteo albonotatus

Zone-tailed Hawk
  • Range: Breeds in a limited range in the US. South and west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
  • Length: 18-22 inches
  • Wingspan: 46-55 inches

Zone-tailed Hawks favor rocky cliffs and canyons and mountainous or hilly terrain. These black hawks mostly hunt over open country, such as grasslands and desert scrub, but also around mixed and coniferous forest clearings and edges.

Their hunting style and appearance initially resemble that of a vulture – they soar and circle in the sky, gradually lowering and then swooping down to catch their prey.

Zone-tailed Hawks are grayish-black overall. When in flight, you can see that the undersides of its flight feathers are barred in black and white and that the edges of its wings have dark trailings.

Its black tail is banded with white. Immatures look like adults but have finely barred tails and fine white spotting on their breasts or bellies. Their call is a high-pitched kreeeee or kreeee-ah.

You can confuse Zone-tailed Hawks with Turkey Vultures and Common Black Hawks.

  • Turkey Vultures don’t have banded tails and dark trailing edges on their wings. They also have a smaller head, and their flight feathers are not barred.
  • Common Black Hawks have shorter but broader and more rounded wings than Zone-tailed Hawks.


Short-tailed Hawk

Buteo brachyurus

  • Range: Year-round residents in Florida, US.
  • Length: 15-17 inches
  • Wingspan: 13-17 inches

In Florida, Short-tailed Hawks can be found near open country, such as prairie, marsh, or farmlands, that borders woodlands. You might not notice them because they usually soar very high in search of prey and don’t perch in the open. When flying, they often glide very slowly and often hang motionless in the air.

Short-tailed Hawks have two morphs both as an adult and a juvenile: light and dark. Adult light morph has dark brown upperparts and neat white underparts. Their white flight and tail feathers have narrow black bars.

While perching, look for narrow dark bands on its tail that are darkest at the tip. Juvenile light morph has pale buff to orange-buff underparts and wing linings and buffy streaks on its cheeks. Flight and tail feathers are barred, but tail feathers appear less barred.

Adult dark morphs are more common in Florida and have a dark brown-black body and wing linings. Their flight and tail feathers are white, barred with black.

When the bird is perched, it appears entirely sooty black or brown. Juvenile dark morphs are dark but strongly spotted or streaked with white. Flight and tail feathers are similar to that of adults’ but tail feathers are less barred.

You may confuse Short-tailed Hawks with Broad-winged Hawks and Red-tailed Hawks.

  • Broad-winged Hawk’s adult light morph has a blotchy brown barring across its chest and wider bands on its tail. Its dark morph is rather rare and can be distinguished by broader tail bands.
  • Red-tailed Hawks are larger than Short-tailed Hawks. The light morph has a distinctive streaky belly band, a lightly rust-colored tail, brown markings on the outer edges of wing linings, and less barring on wings. The dark morph has rusty barred underparts and a black tail with narrow white bars.


Broad-winged Hawk

Buteo platypterus

Broad-winged Hawk
  • Range: Breeds in southern Canada and eastern parts of the US. Migrates to Florida, southern Mexico, and northern South America for the winter.
  • Length: 15-17 inches
  • Wingspan: 29-39 inches

Broad-winged Hawks are rather similar to Accipiters in some respects. They breed in deciduous forests and are mostly found underneath the canopy.

During migration, they fly in very large flocks along mountain ridges and coastlines. They hunt from perches, usually near water, wetlands, meadows, or at the edge of the woods, swooping down to grab their prey.

They give a high-pitched two-noted whistle kee-eee, where the first note is shorter and the second longer.

Broad-winged Hawks also have a dark and a light morph. Adult dark morph is very rare and is dark brown overall. They have a broad white band on their tail. Juveniles are also dark brown overall but have white tails with dark barring. They may also show pale streaking on their underside.

You may confuse it with Red-shouldered Hawks, Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and Red-tailed Hawks.

  • Red-shouldered Hawk (lineatus) – adults have reddish barring on their underside. In flight, its wings aren’t as pale and its tail has several narrow bands. Juveniles are more mottled in white and have a rusty wash on their wing linings. There are pale translucent crescents on its primaries.
  • Cooper’s / Sharp-shinned Hawk – similar to the light morph. However, these Accipiters have longer tails, gray upperparts, and fine reddish barring on their breasts and lack the dark trailing edge on the wings. Rather than soar, they fly with the flap-flap-glide pattern.
  • Red-tailed Hawk – similar to the light morph. Red-tailed Hawks are larger, have dark bars on the outer edges of their wing linings, and have paler underwings. Juveniles have a distinct, brown-streaked belly band and no dark trailing edge on the wings.


Red-shouldered Hawk

Buteo lineatus

Red-shouldered Hawk
  • Range: West Coast and the eastern US. Mostly resident, only breeding in the northernmost area in the eastern US.
  • Length: 15-24 inches
  • Wingspan: 35-50 inches

Red-shouldered Hawks inhabit various wooded habitats across the eastern United States, preferring to live under open sub-canopies. Their flight style is a mix of soaring and circling like a Buteo, but they may also flap and glide like an Accipiter.

Red-tailed Hawks have five subspecies that can have light, rufous, and dark morphs. Overall, adults are dark brown above with white spots, have a dark brown head, and are barred in rusty-and-white on the underside. Their wings and tail are striped black and white. The birds in the east are paler, whereas birds in the west are redder.

If you see pale white or translucent crescents near its wingtips, then you certainly have a Red-shouldered Hawk in your sights. The red “shoulders” are visible when the bird is perched.

Juveniles look similar but are browner and have paler creamy undersides that are streaked and spotted with brown. Both adults and juveniles have translucent crescents on wings and red shoulder patches.


Red-tailed Hawk

Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk
  • Range: Resident in most of the US with breeding range extending from the northern US States to Canada and Alaska.
  • Length: 18-26 inches
  • Wingspan: 45-52 inches

There are 14 recognized subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks, displaying regional variations in appearance as well as light, rufous, and dark morphs.

Their coloration can range from light auburn to deep brown, with the underside of their body and wings typically lighter than the rest. “Krider’s” Red-tailed Hawk is very pale, “Harlans” Red-tailed Hawk is very dark, almost totally black.

Dark and intermediate morphs exhibit more uniform coloration, while lighter morphs tend to have prominent streaking. Their tail is usually rust-colored. Juveniles have a finely banded tail.

If you see a large buteo and are not quite sure what it is, call out Red-tailed Hawk. Most of the time you will be correct!

You may confuse it with Red-shouldered Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks.

  • Red-shouldered Hawk – These tend to be smaller than the Red-tailed and have a brown-and-white banding on their tail.
  • Swainson’s Hawk – Whether it be dark or light morph, then Swainson’s Hawks have dark flight feathers whereas Red-tails have pale flight feathers.


Swainson’s Hawk

Buteo swainsoni

Swainson's Hawk
  • Range: Breeds in western North America as far east as Iowa.
  • Length: 18-27 inches
  • Wingspan: 47-60 inches

Swainson’s Hawks breed in the prairies and dry grasslands of western North America. Their bodies are slender, and they have longer and more pointed wings, often held in a slight V-shape while soaring. This species has a light morph, which is more common, and a dark morph, often met in the western part of its range.

In general, Swainson’s Hawks have light bellies, with a dark or reddish-brown chest and brown or gray upperparts. They showcase distinctive underwings with contrasting white wing linings against their blackish flight feathers.

Males typically have gray heads, while females tend to have brown heads. Dark individuals can range from reddish to almost entirely black, with reduced contrast on the underwings and a light patch beneath the tail.

Juvenile light morphs resemble adults but with pale mottling in dark areas and dark mottling in light areas, particularly on the flanks, while their chests exhibit pale coloration with some darker markings. Juvenile dark morphs usually have pale streaking on their body and light undertail coverts.

You may confuse this hawk with White-tailed, Red-tailed, and Ferruginous Hawks.

  • White-tailed Hawk – White-tailed Hawks can be distinguished by their distinct black band at the end of their white tail, while Swainson’s Hawks have narrow dark bands along their tail. Additionally, White-tailed Hawks lack the brown upper breast that is present in Swainson’s Hawks.
  • Ferruginous Hawk – Ferruginous’s adult light morph looks similar to Swainson’s juvenile light morph. However, Ferruginous Hawks are very pale underneath and almost lack markings.
  • Red-tailed Hawk – Red-tails have broader wings. They have light flight feathers, whereas Swainson’s has dark flight feathers.


Rough-legged Hawk

Buteo lagopus

Rough-Legged Hawk, Near Logan Lake, British Columbia
  • Range: Breeds in the taiga and tundra of North America. Migrates to southern Canada and the United States for the winter.
  • Length: 18-21 inches
  • Wingspan: 52-54 inches

This large hawk nests in the open arctic landscapes in Northern Canada and Alaska. They migrate to various open habitats such as fields and prairies for the winter. When hunting, they may face the wind and hover like a giant kestrel. They frequently perch on fence posts, utility poles, and sometimes slender branches at the top of trees.

Rough-legged Hawks are fairly large hawks that have broad wings longer and narrower compared to other Buteo hawks, and their tails are relatively longer as well. With a distinct dark-brown coloration, their tails are dark at the tip and pale at the base.

Rough-legged Hawks come in both light and dark morphs. Females have pale heads and dark belly patches, while males exhibit a similar pattern but with more mottling. Dark morphs are primarily dark brown, often showcasing pale trailing edges on the underwings.

It is possible to confuse them with Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, and Ferruginous Hawks.

  • Red-tailed Hawk – Red-tailed hawks have streaks across their belly forming a band and an unbanded tail. Female Rough-legged have a dark belly parch and males have a heavily streaked breast. Red-tails usually have a uniformly rust-colored tail.
  • Northern Harrier – Harriers have slenderer bodies and longer wings. They look unsteady in flight. Immatures don’t have strong dark markings on their bodies that Red-tails Rough-legged Hawks do.
  • Ferruginous Hawk – Ferruginous’s light morph may be confused with Rough-legged Hawk’s adult male light morph. However, Ferruginous Hawks don’t have the heavy markings on their breast and belly nor do they have bands on their tail. Dark morphs can be differentiated by body shape.


Ferruginous Hawk

Buteo regalis

Ferruginous Hawk

Photograph © Tom Grey.

  • Range: Breeds in the northern half of the western US, winters in the southern half of the US. Resident in areas where breeding and wintering ranges overlap.
  • Length: 20-28 inches
  • Wingspan: 48-62 inches

Ferruginous Hawks are commonly found in the arid and semiarid grasslands of North America, preferring open, level, or rolling prairies, foothills, and cultivated shelterbelts or riparian corridors. Their flight is characterized by active, slow wing beats similar to a small eagle, and they employ techniques such as hovering and low cruising while hunting over the ground.

The Ferruginous Hawk, the largest of the North American Buteos, is often mistaken for an eagle due to its size, proportions, and behavior.

It exhibits two color forms: light morph birds are rusty brown on the upper parts with a pale head, neck, and underparts, along with rust markings on the legs and underwings, while dark morph birds are dark brown overall with light areas on the upper and lower wings.

Adult Ferruginous Hawks possess long, broad wings and a wide tail in shades of gray, rusty, or white.

These hawks can be confused with Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks.

  • Red-tailed Hawk – light morphs are similar, but Red-tails have more rounded and shorter wings. They also have a dark streaked belly band.
  • Swainson’s Hawk – Similar in shape, but Swainson’s dark morph has a dark band at the tail tip and dark flight feathers, whereas Ferruginous’ dark morph has white flight feathers.

See all hawks articles



There is only one species of Osprey in the United States and Canada. They are mainly piscivores and therefore mostly found near water, such as freshwater lakes and rivers.



Pandion haliaetus

  • Range: Ranges throughout North and Central America. You can see it in North America mostly during the breeding season and migration.
  • Length: 20-26 inches
  • Wingspan: 50-71 inches

The Osprey, also known as the fish hawk, has specially adapted feet for capturing slippery fish. When hunting, they fly on steady wingbeats and bowed wings or circle high in the sky above shallow water. They tend to hover for a second before diving for their prey, feet first.

These large and distinctive hawks have slender bodies with long, narrow wings and legs. When you see them in flight, you can recognize them easily because they hold their wings in an M-shape.

Ospreys are predominantly brown above and white below, exhibiting a whiter overall appearance compared to most raptors. Their wings, when seen from below, are mostly white with a distinct dark patch at the wrists. The head is white with a wide brown stripe passing through the eye. Juveniles have white spots on their back and buffy shading on the breast.

You may confuse an Osprey for a Bald Eagle or a Turkey Vulture.

  • Bald Eagle – adults are larger and have a pure white head and tail and black body. Juveniles are mottled and don’t have the white body Ospreys have.
  • Turkey Vulture – dark bodies and underwings instead of white bodies.



Kites are a group of birds known for their graceful flight and distinctive appearance. They belong to the family Accipitridae and the ones in North America are characterized by their slim bodies and long, pointed wings.

These aerial predators are primarily found in tropical and subtropical regions.


Mississippi Kite

Ictinia mississippiensis

Mississippi Kite

Photograph © Greg Lavaty.

  • Range: Can be seen in the southeastern US during the breeding season and migration.
  • Length: 12-15 inches
  • Wingspan: 36 inches

Mississippi Kites inhabit wooded streams, groves, and shelterbelts, preferring nesting locations with tall trees adjacent to open country. Mississippi Kites are graceful fliers but also forage on the ground and in shallow water. They’re social and form large groups for roosting and foraging and pairs often nest close to each other.

Adult Mississippi Kites have a contrasting plumage of shades of gray. Their upperside is darker gray and their head and underside are pale grayish-white. Wingtips are darker and its tail is nearly black.

Related: Falcon Identification

Immature Mississippi Kites, on the other hand, have a streaky appearance with brownish chests and underwings, as well as banded tails.

They have several similar species but can be differentiated quite easily upon closer examination.

  • White-tailed Kite – their range overlaps in parts of Texas. White-tailed Kites are lighter colored and have dark patches on their shoulders.
  • Peregrine Falcon – they can look similar while soaring, but are less buoyant and more powerful. Peregrine Falcon has a dark head whereas Mississippi Kites have dark wingtips.
  • Northern Harrier – males are much paler on the underside and have a white rump patch. Females and immatures resemble immature Mississippi Kites, but their wings are longer, broader, rounder, and less pointed.


White-tailed Kite

Elanus leucurus

White-tailed kite
  • Range: In the US, resident along the Pacific Coast region, southern Florida, and southern Texas.
  • Length: 13-17 inches
  • Wingspan: 35-43 inches

White-tailed Kites can be commonly observed in open habitats such as savannas, marshes, open woodlands, desert grasslands, and cultivated fields. They primarily hunt by flying over those areas and frequently hovering. When they spot their prey, they swiftly dive and seize it with their talons.

With its narrow, pointed wings and long tail, the White-tailed Kite has a distinctive appearance. When perched, they appear to have a large head and a slender body.

In flight, adults are white below and show black on the primaries. They have pale gray upperparts, a white head, and black shoulders. Juveniles resemble adults but feature a cinnamon-colored wash on their crown and breast.

As with other kites, there are several similar species but it is easy to make the difference if you take a closer look.

  • Mississippi Kite – Mississippi Kites have a black instead of a white tail and White-tailed Kites look much brighter overall.
  • Swallow-tailed Kite – These have black flight feathers and a black forked tail. When perched, they look slimmer and taller and have smaller heads.
  • White-tailed Hawk – overall larger, the adult light morphs of this hawk have a dark border along their wings and a black band on the tip of their tail.


Swallow-tailed Kite

Elanoides forficatus

Swallow-tailed Kite
  • Range: Breeds in many southern Southern states. Can also be found in parts of Central and most of South America.
  • Length: 20-27 inches
  • Wingspan: 48 inches

In North America, Swallow-tailed Kites thrive in open pine woods near marshes or prairies, cypress swamps, and other riverside swamp forests that have open areas nearby for hunting.

These aerial creatures spend the majority of their day soaring effortlessly through the air, often gliding at low altitudes over trees to hunt for small animals among the branches. During migration, they’re known to form large flocks.

Swallow-tailed Kites are graceful and slender raptors with long, pointed wings, slim bodies, and deeply forked tails. They exhibit a striking contrast between their bright-white head and underparts and the gleaming black of their flight feathers, back, and tail. Juveniles closely resemble adults but display a subtle buffy wash on their heads and breast.

Some similar species and easy ways to identify them:

  • White-tailed Kite – smaller and their tail is white and not forked.
  • Mississippi Kite – have a gray upper body instead of a black one and are uniformly gray on the underside.
  • Magnificent Frigatebird – adult female frigatebirds are much larger, and only their breast is white, otherwise, they’re black. Their beak is also longer.



Harriers have long wings, a slender tail, and usually fly slow and low over open areas such as grasslands hunting for prey. In North America, there’s only one of them – the Northern Harrier.


Northern Harrier

Circus hudsonius

Northern Harrier
  • Range: Found almost throughout all of North and Central America. Resident throughout most of the US. The breeding range extends to Canada and Alaska and wintering range to the southern US and Central America.
  • Length: 16-20 inches
  • Wingspan: 38-48 inches

Northern Harriers inhabit diverse wet and dry open terrains with sufficient ground cover. They are commonly found in marshes, especially during the nesting season.

Their preferred hunting method involves low flight over fields, carefully scanning the ground, and when prey is detected in dense cover, they may hover close to the site or attempt to flush it into the open. It has a distinctive flight pattern, flying close to the ground with upraised wings, as it searches for mice and other prey.

Northern Harriers are sleek raptors with long, broad wings, a distinct face similar to that of an owl, and a long, rounded tail. Males have gray uppersides and whitish undersides with black wingtips, a dark trailing edge on the wings, and a black-banded tail.

Females and immatures are brown above and whitish below with brown streaks. Immatures have fewer streaks and have a slightly buffy underside. In flight, all Northern Harriers reveal a conspicuous white rump patch.

Once you see the Northern Harrier’s flight pattern, you will be able to immediately identify it.

You may confuse it with Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Goshawks.

  • Rough-legged Hawk – larger and heavier, shorter tails. They don’t have that owl-like face either.
  • Northern Goshawk – adults have finely barred undersides and have a prominent stripe across their eyes. Juveniles lack the white rump patch. Neither adult nor juvenile goshawks have an owl-like face.

About the Author

Heleen Roos

Heleen has loved the outdoors and nature since childhood and has always been fascinated with birds, leading her to research more about them. She has accumulated a lot of knowledge about their behaviors and habits through birdwatching tours and her own explorations. Her goal is to share the most interesting and useful facts about them.

Let others know your thoughts or ask an expert

Mary D.

Thursday 30th of November 2023

Today I noticed Large bird perched on the apartment right across from my building. I took a picture of it before getting out my vehicl. I wanted to try to get a better picture of it, but it flew to the ground and started pecking at something. I tried to get a picture of it, but then a car passed by and it flew away. Can someone identify this bird for me. It was so regal. MARY

Patrick O'Donnell

Monday 4th of December 2023

@Mary D.- It's hard to say what that bird may have been. Can you send us a description of its color, shape, and what type of beak it had?


Saturday 18th of November 2023

Hi. A large bird with expansions be wings in my yard near the marsh. It appears to have a brown top and brown body with green wings and white under the wings. I thought it was a hawk. I am in MA. It was acting as a predator. I tried to upload the photo but couldn’t. Do you know what it is?

Patrick O'Donnell

Tuesday 21st of November 2023

@BirdloverMA- It could certainly be a hawk but without a photo, it's hard to guess which species.


Wednesday 1st of November 2023

The photo isn't the best, I took it at a stop light in Ocean County NJ. Can anyone help i.d. this guy? Thanks, Pk


Monday 18th of September 2023

I came across a reference in a Michigan book to a "Bristles hawk". Although I have many books about hawks and raptors in general, I have never previously heard this Term. The gentleman who used it is now deceased. Have you ever heard it, or can shed any light on it ?>


Monday 18th of September 2023

Thanks Patrick. Am thinking it may have been a local idiom, like calling a Great Blue Heron a shypoke (sp?), the bird's name I first heard as a young boy.

The book where this "Bristles" is mentioned is "Lure of the Lone Trail", a compilation of short stories by author Glen Sheppard. He was an early conservationist who wrote The North Woods Call newspaper in Michigan for many years. The term is used on page 219 in a story named "Fighting for the River". Both Glen Sheppard and Bud Jones were friends of mine. Bud took me to see a nesting Goshawk in the Jordan River area back in the early 1980s. We did not stay long as this bird was strafing us wth talons ablaze!

Patrick O'Donnell

Monday 18th of September 2023

@Michael- No, despite looking into it, we have never heard of that term. If we find something out, we'll post more about it here!


Wednesday 21st of June 2023

Today I saw 3 birds eating a dead opossum at the end of my street. One was a vulture. The other two were bigger with orange/yellow beaks and a white band around the neck. What are they ??? Wish I took a picture

Patrick O'Donnell

Thursday 22nd of June 2023

@Cathi- From your description, it sounds like you may have seen a pair of Crested Caracaras. Nice sighting! In the USA, these scavengers mostly live in southern Texas and central Florida. Look that bird up and see if it matches what you saw.

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