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How To Spot Different Hawk Species In North Carolina?

Hawks in North Carolina

North Carolina is a great place for hawks! Several of these raptor species can be seen soaring, flapping, or perched in open and forested habitats throughout the state.

There are hawks that migrate through North Carolina and some spend the winter. Others are common birds all year long.

Go birding anywhere in North Carolina and you’ll see hawks! But which species are they? Find out in this article!

 

Most Common Hawks in North Carolina

North Carolina has several species of hawks. Many were also seen in 2022 and 2023!

To make the best list of North Carolina hawks, we reviewed hawk sightings in the eBird platform from 2022 and 2023. Next, we arranged those species from most common to least common.

A list is a good first step for hawk identification, but recognizing them can still be quite the challenge! To help, we also included information with field marks and behavior for every species on the list.

We hope this list helps you identify more hawks in North Carolina!

 

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk pair

© Tom Grey

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 shoulders and black and white on its wings and tail. Both sexes are similar, but as with most raptors, females are larger than males.

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.

They hunt by waiting on a perch and then swooping down to catch the animal on the ground. Red-shouldered Hawks prey on snakes, frogs, and other small animals.

The Red-shouldered Hawk lives in a variety of woodland habitats in southeastern Canada, the eastern USA, including North Carolina, California, southeastern Oregon, and Baja California, Mexico.

Key Identifications:

  • 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 shoulders. These raptors live 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.

 

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed hawk (Juvenile)

Red-Tailed hawk (Juvenile) © Greg Lavaty.

Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis

Speed: 20-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 2.4 pounds
Wingspan: 49 inches
Call: 
keeeyah!

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.

They use a wide range of habitats in Alaska and the USA, much of Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, and parts of Central America.

Key Identifications:

  • 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.

 

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii

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.

Related: Birds of North Carolina

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.

This species lives in a variety of wooded and semi-wooded habitats in southern Canada, most of the USA, including North Carolina, and in parts of Mexico.

Key Identifications:

  • 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, this hawk 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 but, since then, this species has regained its numbers and become a common bird.

 

Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp Shinned Hawk

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.

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 North Carolina.

Key Identifications:              

  • 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.

 

Broad-winged Hawk

Broad-Winged Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo platypterus

Speed: 20-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
15 inches, 14 ounces
Wingspan: 34 inches
Call: 
sipeeeeeeeee

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, showing 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.

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.

Key Identifications:

  • 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.

 

Rough-legged Hawk (Rare)

Rough-legged Hawk

Photograph © Tom Grey

Scientific name: Buteo lagopus

Speed: 22-28 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
22 inches, 1.3 to 3.6 pounds
Wingspan: 53 inches
Call:
“reeaaaauh!”

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 tail 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.

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 North Carolina, and Europe and Asia.

Key Identifications:

  • 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.

 

Swainson’s Hawk (Listed, not seen)

Swainson's Hawk

Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni

Speed: 15-60 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 1.9 pounds
Wingspan: 51 inches
Call:
 “eeeah!

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, and 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.

Swainson’s Hawks breed in grasslands, meadows, and other open habitats in central and western Canada and the USA. They migrate through the central USA and winter in grasslands in Argentina. A few also migrate through winter in southern Florida.

Key Identifications:

  • 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.

 

Northern Goshawk (Listed, not seen)

Northern Goshawk

Scientific name: Accipiter atricapillus

Speed: 30-40 miles per hour
Length & Weight:
19 inches, 2 pounds
Wingspan: 40 inches
Call:
“kip kip kip”

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 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, and 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.

In North America, Northern Goshawks live in coniferous and other wild wooded habitats in Alaska, Canada, and parts of the northern and western USA, including North Carolina and northern Mexico.

Key Identifications:

  • 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.

 

You Might Also Ask

What type of hawks are in North Carolina?

There are many types of hawks in North Carolina. The most commonly seen species are the Red-shouldered Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and Sharp-shinned Hawk.

What hawk is native to NC?

Hawks native to NC include the Red-shouldered Hawk and several other species.

How many hawks are in NC?

There are nine species of hawks in NC.

Are there hawks in Raleigh, NC?

Yes, there are hawks in Raleigh, NC. The Red-tailed Hawk is a common species in the city.

 

More in North Carolina: Most common birds | Owls | State bird

About the Author

Patrick O'Donnell

Patrick O'Donnell has been focused on all things avian since the age of 7. Since then, he has helped with ornithological field work in the USA and Peru, and has guided many birding tours, especially in Costa Rica. He develops birding apps for BirdingFieldGuides and loves to write about birds, especially in his adopted country of Costa Rica.

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