Do hawks live in Iowa? Anyone who has driven through the farmlands and other habitats of Iowa knows that there are plenty of hawks living in the state.
Hawks are common and easy to see in much of Iowa but how many species live there? See this article to identify and learn about the hawks that visit your Iowa backyard!
Hawks in Iowa
Based on eBird data, eight hawk species are common or regularly seen in Iowa. Some are breeders while other hawks are migrants or spend the winter in the state.
That’s a lot of hawks to look at! Since it can be tough to identify all of those hawks, we made a list of the hawk species that occur in Iowa.
We researched eBird and breeding bird survey data to arrange the birds from most common to least common, and also included two rare species that have occurred in the state.
To help with identification, there is information about their field marks and behavior. We hope this list helps!
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Speed: 20-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 19 inches, 2.4 pounds
Wingspan: 49 inches
The Red-tailed Hawk is a big and bulky hawk with dark brown upperparts and long, broad wings. Adults have a broad reddish tail and both sexes are similar (although females are larger than males).
In the east, adults have pale underparts with dark marks on their belly but western birds can be dark brown, buff, or reddish-brown below. Young birds have brown tails with darks barring.
In flight, all Red-tailed Hawks show a large, somewhat square-shaped, pale area near the tips of their wings.
This species preys on a variety of small animals, including squirrels, rats, snakes, and birds. It catches prey by swooping down from a perch or from soaring flight.
Red-tailed Hawks build a messy stick nest high in a tree or on the ledge of a building.
They use a wide range of habitats in Alaska and the USA, much of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of Central America.
- Large, hefty hawk with a reddish tail and dark marks on its pale belly.
- Preys on small mammals, snakes, and birds.
- Builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
- Makes loud, jay-like, ringing calls, “keeeyah!”.
The Red-tailed Hawk is a hefty hawk with long broad wings, a broad reddish tail, and dark marks on its pale belly. In most places, this is the big hawk seen perched next to and soaring over roads and fields. The “raptor scream” often heard in movies and television shows is the call of the Red-tailed Hawk.
Scientific name: Accipiter cooperi
Speed: 21-55 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 16.5 inches, 1 pound
Wingspan: 31 inches
Call: “kek kek kek kek kek!”
The Cooper’s Hawk is a fair-sized hawk with a long, rounded tail and a blocky, square-shaped head. Adults are blue-gray above and have orange barring below.
Both sexes look similar, although females are larger. They also often show a dark cap, have pale grayish on their face and side of the neck, and dark banding on their tail.
Young birds are shaped like adults but are dark brown above, have paler brown on the head, and fine dark streaking on pale underparts.
In flight, this species uses its rounded wings to make a few deep flaps followed by a brief glide.
The Cooper’s Hawk preys on doves and other medium-sized birds, and small mammals. It usually catches them on the ground and frequently attacks birds at feeders.
Cooper’s Hawks build a bulky stick nest high in a tree and often nest in parks.
This species lives in a variety of wooded and semi-wooded habitats in southern Canada, most of the USA (including Iowa), and in parts of Mexico.
- Fair-sized hawk with orange barring below, blue gray above, and a long rounded tail.
- Preys on small mammals and starlings and dove-sized birds in woodlands, parks, and towns.
- Builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
- Usually quiet, but when breeding, it makes a loud barking call, “kek kek kek kek kek!”
In many areas, it has become adapted to people and catches birds and small mammals in woodlands and towns. The pesticide DDT caused large declines in Cooper’s Hawk populations in the 1950s and 60s. Since then, this species has regained its numbers and become a common bird.
Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
Speed: 21-38 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 18 inches, 15 ounces
Wingspan: 43 inches
Call: “che che che che che che”
The Northern Harrier is a fair-sized, unique hawk with long wings, a long tail, and a white rump. Adult males have gray upperparts, head, and breast. They also have some pale brown spotting on their underparts and black tips on their wings.
Females are dark brown above and have dark brown streaks on pale underparts. Young birds are also dark brown above but have deep orange-buff underparts.
All Northern Harriers have a white rump and glide low over the ground on long wings held in a “V” shape.
This species prey on small animals caught on the ground, sometimes after hovering.
It uses grass and other vegetation to make a shallow platform nest on the ground, in thick wetland or grassland areas.
Northern Harriers breed in grasslands and other open habitats in Alaska, Canada, California, and the northern and central USA, including Iowa. They winter in much of the USA, Mexico, and rarely to northern South America.
- Distinctive long-winged, long-tailed hawk with a white rump.
- Glides low over the ground to catch rodents and other small animals in marshes and other open grassy habitats.
- Makes a repetitive, woodpecker-like call, “che che che che che che”
This bird and the Hen Harrier of northern Eurasia used to be considered the same species, but despite their similar appearance, studies have shown that the Northern Harrier is a distinct species.
The Rough-legged Hawk is a long-winged hawk with a black and white tail. There are two color morphs, both with broad white patches near dark wing tips and a longish pale tail with a broad black tip.
Pale females and juveniles are pale gray-brown with a black belly and black “wrists” in their wings. Pale adult males are more cold gray, have less black on their belly, and heavily streaked breasts.
Dark females and juveniles are dark brown except for their tails and flight feathers. Dark adult males are black except for their flight feathers and tail.
In flight, this species holds its wings in a shallow “V.”
Rough-legged Hawks soar and hover over open fields where they prey on voles and other small animals.
It builds a bulky nest on a cliff or rocky outcropping.
The Rough-legged Hawk breeds in tundra in Alaska, northern Canada, and northern Eurasia, and winters in open fields in southern Canada, the northern, central, and western USA, including Iowa, and Europe and Asia.
- Big hawk with a longish black and white tail, and long wings with broad white patches near the dark wing tips.
- Preys on rodents and other small animals in wide open habitats.
- Builds a big, bulky nest on cliffs and rocky outcroppings in tundra.
- Makes a loud, clear descending call, “reeaaaauh!”.
The Rough-legged Hawk is a big, long-winged hawk with a black and white tail and broad white patches near the tips of their wings. They hover and soar over weedy fields and other open habitats to hunt for rodents and birds. This species is one of the only hawks in North America that has feathers on its legs.
Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
Speed: 16-60 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 11 inches, 5 ounces
Wingspan: 23 inches
Call: “kew kew kew kew kew kew kew kew”
The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a small hawk with a long, rectangular tail and rounded wings. Adults have blue-gray upperparts, orange barring on their underparts, and dark bands on their tail.
Females are larger than males, and young birds are dark brown above with thick brown streaks on pale underparts.
This species flies with several quick wing beats followed by brief glides. When flying, its head doesn’t stick out as much as a Cooper’s Hawk and it shows a square-tipped tail.
The Sharp-shinned Hawk preys on small birds up to the size of an American Robin. It mostly catches birds around the same size as sparrows, warblers, and vireos by quickly flying and catching them in vegetation.
This hawk builds a bulky stick nest high in a conifer.
Sharp-shinned Hawks live in wooded habitats in Alaska, much of Canada and the USA, Mexico, parts of Central America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. They are common hawks in Iowa.
- Small hawk with rounded wings and a long, rectangular tail.
- Preys on small birds in woodland habitats.
- Builds bulky stick nest high in a conifer.
- Usually quiet but on breeding grounds makes falcon-like, repeated ringing calls “kew kew kew kew kew kew kew kew”.
This small hawk with a long, rectangular tail breeds in coniferous forests and winters in a range of wooded habitats. It often attacks small birds at feeders. The Sharp-shinned Hawk gets its name from its thin legs that have angled, “sharp” shins.
Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
Speed: 18-34 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 17 inches, 1.4 pounds
Wingspan: 40 inches
Call: “keer keer keer keer keer!”
The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized hawk with reddish-orange underparts and shoulder, and black and white on its wings and tail.
Both sexes are similar, but as with most raptors, females are larger than males. Young birds are brown above and have dark streaks on pale underparts.
In flight, all ages of this hawk species are best recognized by their longish, black and white tail and long wings with a pale crescent-shaped mark near the tip of the wing.
Red-shouldered Hawks prey on snakes, frogs, and other small animals. They forage by waiting on a perch and then swooping down to catch the animal on the ground.
This species builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree in wooded and semi-wooded areas, often near wetlands.
The Red-shouldered Hawk lives in a variety of woodland habitats in southeastern Canada, the eastern USA, including Iowa, California, southeastern Oregon, and Baja California, Mexico.
- Medium-sized, colorful hawk with reddish-orange underparts and shoulder, and black and white upperparts and tail.
- Forages for snakes and other small animals on the ground in woodland habitats.
- Builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
- Makes loud, jay-like, ringing calls, “keer keer keer keer keer!”
The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized hawk with reddish underparts and shoulder, and a black and white tail. This raptor lives in a variety of wooded areas and even wooded neighborhoods in California and Florida. This species can join American Crows to harass and chase away Great Horned Owls.
Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
Speed: 20-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 15 inches, 14 ounces
Wingspan: 34 inches
The Broad-winged Hawk is a smallish raptor around the same size as a crow. Adults are dark brown above, have dark, reddish-brown barring below, and a broad tail with a few wide, white bands.
Both sexes look the same and also have a thick dark mark on each side of their throat although females are larger. Young birds have dark brown streaks on pale underparts.
In flight, this species often soars, shows a broad black and white tail, and has long wings shaped like a “paring knife” that also have a dark trailing edge.
This raptor preys on voles, frogs, insects, and other small animals. It catches food by waiting on a perch and then quickly swooping down to the ground.
Broad-winged Hawks make a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
This small hawk breeds in forest habitats in central and southeastern Canada and much of the eastern USA. It winters in southern Florida and Mexico south to Bolivia.
- Chunky, smallish, crow-sized hawk with a few white bands on its tail and underparts with brown barring or streaks.
- Preys on insects and small animals in woodland habitats.
- Builds a bulky nest high in a tree.
- Makes a high-pitched call, “sipeeeeeeeee”
This chunky, crow-sized hawk has a few prominent white bands on its broad tail and either dark barring below or dark streaks. It often soars above and near woodland habitats. In southern Texas and some other places, thousands of Broad-winged Hawks can be seen as they migrate between breeding and tropical wintering grounds.
Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
Speed: 15-60 miles per hour
Length & Weight: 19 inches, 1.9 pounds
Wingspan: 51 inches
The Swainson’s Hawk is a big hawk with dark-brown upperparts, long, pointed wings with dark flight feathers, and a broad tail with fine dark barring and a dark tip. Males and females are similar, although females are larger.
Adults can have a white throat, front, wing linings, and underparts with a red-brown breast. They can also have a white throat and front, reddish brown underparts and wing linings, or be entirely dark brown.
Young birds can have dark markings on pale underparts or be mostly dark below.
This species catches grasshoppers and small animals on the ground. It forages by soaring and then swooping down or walking on the ground.
It builds a bulky stick nest in a tree.
Swainson’s Hawks breed in grasslands, meadows, and other open habitats in central and western Canada and the USA, including Iowa. They migrate through the central USA and winter in grasslands in Argentina. A few also migrate to winter in southern Florida.
- Large, long-winged hawk with dark flight feathers and a broad tail with fine dark banding and a dark tip.
- Feeds on insects and small animals in prairies and other open habitats.
- Builds a bulky stick nest in a tree.
- Makes a loud, descending, single note, “eeeah!”.
The Swainson’s Hawk is a large, long-winged raptor with dark flight feathers and some white on the rump. It soars above and perches in trees, and on the ground in prairies and other open habitats. This species migrates from western North America all the way to grasslands in Argentina.
Rare Hawks in Iowa
The Northern Goshawk is a large, hefty hawk with a long, banded tail, and rounded wings. Adults look similar, but females can be 25% larger. Both sexes are gray above and white below with fine gray barring. They also have a dark cap and cheek, red eyes, and a white eyebrow.
Young birds are dark brown above with some pale spotting, have a pale eyebrows, uneven dark bands on their tail, and heavily streaked underparts.
In flight, Northern Goshawks make a few deep flaps followed by long glides.
This powerful raptor preys on squirrels, other small mammals, grouse, woodpeckers, and many other mid-sized birds. They catch prey on the ground or by quickly flying through vegetation to grasp the unlucky animal with their talons.
This species builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree.
In North America, Northern Goshawks live in coniferous and other wild wooded habitats in Alaska, Canada, parts of the northern and western USA, including Iowa, and northern Mexico.
- Hefty, long-tailed hawk with gray plumage or brown, streaked plumage and a white eyebrow.
- Preys on fair-sized birds and mammals in coniferous forest habitats.
- Builds a bulky, stick nest high in a tree.
- Makes a repeated call, “kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip kip”.
The Northern Goshawk is a large, long-tailed, hefty gray or brown-streaked hawk with a white eyebrow. Pairs hunt for medium-sized birds and mammals in coniferous forest habitats. This powerful raptor is very defensive of its nest and won’t hesitate to attack people and animals that venture too close.
The Ferruginous Hawk is a big hawk with a pale tail, long wings, and feathered legs. There are two color morphs.
Adults can be white below with red-brown on their wing linings and flanks. They also have reddish-brown legs and are reddish-brown and pale gray above. Dark morphs are dark brown with a pale tail and pale flight feathers.
Juveniles are paler below and lack reddish-brown colors.
In flight, it soars with wings held in a shallow “V”. Pale primary patches are also visible on the upper sides of each wing.
The Ferruginous Hawk preys on prairie dogs and other mammals but can also catch waterfowl. It waits on the ground, low perch, or flying low and then snatching prey with its talons.
It builds a big, bulky stick nest in a lone tree, or on a rock outcropping or other structure.
This raptor lives in wide open habitats in south-central Canada, the western USA, and northern Mexico. They are common hawks in Iowa.
- Big pale or dark hawk with long wings and a pale tail.
- Preys on prairie dogs, other mammals, and waterfowl in wide-open habitats.
- Builds a big and bulky stick nest in an isolated tree or other structure.
- Makes a hoarse, descending call, “reeaaaauh!”.
The Ferruginous Hawk is a big, eagle-like, pale raptor with reddish-brown and gray upperparts. It can also be dark brown with a pale tail and pale flight feathers and lives in prairies and other wide-open habitats. “Ferruginous” means “rust-colored” and refers to the reddish plumage on their backs and legs.
Hawks in Iowa – Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of hawks are in Iowa?
There are several kinds of hawks in Iowa. Eight species of hawks are common or regular in the state, and two other species occur on rare occasions.
What is the most common hawk in Iowa?
The most common hawk in Iowa is the Red-tailed Hawk. According to eBird data and breeding bird surveys, this species is seen more often than any other hawk in Iowa.
Are there hawks in Iowa?
Yes, there are hawks in Iowa. Red-tailed Hawks are often seen throughout the state, Cooper’s Hawks live in many neighborhoods, and the Northern Harrier is frequently seen gliding over open fields.
What is the smallest hawk in Iowa?
The smallest hawk in Iowa is the Sharp-shinned Hawk. On average, this hawk is 11 inches long, just slightly bigger than an American Robin.