8 Formidable Hawks in North Carolina to spot

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Hawks in North Carolina

Hawks in North Carolina are incredible birds that capture the interest of birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts throughout the state. With their impressive appearance and keen hunting abilities, these birds of prey are a captivating sight.

Whether exploring the woodlands, walking through open fields, or observing wildlife in urban areas, spotting a hawk in North Carolina is a rewarding experience.

What Are The Most Common Hawks in North Carolina?

The most common hawks in North Carolina include the Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Rough-legged Hawks.

This article will cover North Carolina’s eight hawks, from the iconic Red-tailed Hawk to the tiny Sharp-shinned Hawk and beyond.

With helpful tips and insights for identifying these birds and understanding their unique appearance, behaviors, and habitat, this post will be a valuable resource for both seasoned birdwatchers and enthusiastic beginners.

We have organized our list from most likely seen to the least likely to be seen for your convenience.

North Carolina Hawks

According to the latest data from ebird, there are eight observed species of Hawks in North Carolina. This data has been collected from over 41,000 dedicated bird watchers throughout the state.

Here are some quick facts:

  • The Red-shouldered Hawk is the most commonly observed hawk in North Carolina
  • Rough-legged Hawks are the least widely observed species in the state.
  • Osprey are the largest in North Carolina
  • Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest in North Carolina

8 Types Of Hawks In North Carolina

1. Red-shouldered Hawk

The Red-shouldered Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey that is native to North America and is a year-round resident of North Carolina. They are named for the distinctive reddish-brown feathers on their shoulders.

  • Length: 43-61cm (16.9-24 inches)
  • Weight: 486-774g (17.1-27oz)
  • Wingspan: 94-110cm (37-44 inches)
  • Red-shouldered Hawk Scientific Name: Buteo lineatus

Appearance

Red-shouldered Hawks have medium-length tails and broad rounded wings. They have a dark and white checkered back and wings, with a reddish-brown chest and belly. 

As their name suggests, they also have reddish-brown feathers on their shoulders, which are easily noticeable in flight.

Habitat

You can spot a Red-shouldered Hawk in wooded areas, often near water sources such as rivers or swamps. They are less common in open areas than Red-tailed Hawks. They are found throughout the eastern and far western parts of the United States and into Mexico.

Diet

They are predatory birds that feed on a variety of prey. They hunt during the day, using their sharp eyesight to spot prey from a perch high in the trees. They eat small mammals such as mice, voles, and squirrels, and reptiles such as snakes, lizards, and frogs.

Nesting

Red-shouldered Hawks build their nests in notches in tall trees, usually near water sources. They use sticks and twigs to create a platform, which they line with soft materials like moss and lichen. 

They typically lay 2-4 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Red-shouldered Hawks have a distinctive call that sounds like “kee-yer” or “kee-aah.”
  • These birds have a unique hunting style where they swoop down from a perch to catch prey.
  • They are sometimes confused with Cooper’s Hawks or Sharp-shinned Hawks, which have similar coloration and hunting styles.
  • These birds are monogamous and may mate for life.

2. Red-tailed Hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk is a large bird of prey native to North America. They are one of the most iconic and identifiable hawks in North America and can be seen throughout North Carolina all year round.

  • Length: 45-65cm (17.7-25.6inches)
  • Weight: 690-1460g (24.3-51.5oz)
  • Wingspan: 114-133cm (44.9-52.4inches)
  • Red-tailed Hawk Scientific Name: Buteo jamaicensis

Appearance

Red-tailed Hawks are large birds with a wingspan of up to four feet. They are brown above and pale below with a streaked belly. As their name suggests, their most distinctive feature is their red tail, which you can often see as they soar through the skies.

Habitat

Red-tailed Hawks are common throughout North America, from as far north as Alaska to as far south as Panama. They prefer to live in open areas like fields, prairies, and deserts, but you will also see them in wooded areas. 

They are highly adaptable and can also live and hunt in urban and suburban areas. Look for them perched on high trees and telephone poles at the edge of fields.

Diet

The Red-tailed Hawk is a predatory raptor that feeds on various prey. They hunt during the day, using their keen eyesight to spot their food from high in the sky. They eat small mammals like mice, rabbits, ground squirrels, birds, snakes, and other reptiles.

Nesting

Red-tailed Hawks build their nests high above the ground, usually near open areas where they can hunt. These can be tall trees, billboards, towers, and buildings. 

They use sticks and twigs to build a large platform, which they line with soft materials like grass and leaves. They typically lay 2-3 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Red-tailed Hawks are known for their distinctive call, often heard in movies and TV shows.
  • These birds can fly at speeds of up to 120 miles per hour!
  • They are famous in falconry, a sport that involves training birds of prey to hunt.
  • In some Native American cultures, the Red-tailed Hawk is considered a symbol of strength and courage.

3. Osprey

Ospreys are giant hawks that can be seen on almost every continent. They are also called a sea or fish hawks and feed exclusively on fish.

They can be seen on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina all year round and in the interior and western parts of the state during the summer breeding months.

  • Length: 54-58cm (21-23 inches)
  • Weight: 1400-2000g (49.4-70oz)
  • Wingspan: 150-180cm (59-71 inches)
  • Osprey Scientific Name: Pandion haliaetus

Appearance

Ospreys are large birds with a wingspan of up to 6 feet. They have dark brown feathers on their back and wings, with a white chest and belly. Their heads are white with a distinctive dark eye stripe. They also have long legs with sharp, curved talons for catching fish.

Habitat

You can find Ospreys near bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, and coastlines. They are located on every continent except Antarctica, but you can more easily see them in North America and Europe.

Diet

Ospreys are predatory birds that feed almost exclusively on fish. They hunt during the day, using their keen eyesight to spot fish in the water from high in the sky. 

You can see them hovering high above the water to spot their catch. Once they spot a fish, they dive into the water feet first to catch it. They are also known for their ability to shake off excess water before flying away with their catch.

Nesting

Ospreys build large nests of sticks and twigs, usually in tall trees or artificial structures such as poles or platforms. They may use the same nest year after year, adding to it each time. 

They typically lay 2-4 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Ospreys are the only raptors that exclusively eat fish.
  • These birds have a reversible outer toe that helps them grip their slippery prey more effectively.
  • Once they have caught a fish, they maneuver the fish’s head forward to reduce wind resistance.
  • Ospreys are known for their spectacular fishing dives, reaching up to 80 miles per hour.
  • These birds can migrate up to 160,000 miles in their lifetime, traveling between their breeding and wintering grounds.

4. Cooper’s Hawk

The Cooper’s Hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey that people can see throughout North America and is a year-round resident of North Carolina.

They are named after William Cooper, an American naturalist who helped describe the species in the 19th century.

  • Length: 37-45cm (14.5-17.8 inches)
  • Weight: 220-680g (7.8-24oz)
  • Wingspan: 62-90cm (24.5-35.5 inches)
  • Cooper’s Hawk Scientific Name: Accipiter cooperii

Appearance

Cooper’s Hawks are medium-sized birds with a wingspan of up to 3 feet. They are blue-gray above, with a rusty-colored chest and belly. They also have distinctive dark caps on their head and dark horizontal bars on their tails.

Juveniles have brown wings and back with streaked underparts. They appear similar to Sharp-shinned hawks but are noticeably larger, and males are smaller than females.

They have broad rounded wings, long tails, sharp, curved talons, and a hooked beak for catching and eating their prey.

Habitat

You can spot Cooper’s Hawks in various wooded habitats, from suburban parks to mature forests. They can be found throughout North America, from southern Canada to Mexico.

Diet

Cooper’s Hawks are predatory birds that feed on various prey, including small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They hunt during the day, using their keen eyesight and agility to pursue their prey through the trees. They are known for their fast, acrobatic flights through the forest.

They are expert ambushers and patrol areas with backyard bird feeders to swoop down and grab unsuspecting prey.

We have witnessed a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk fly fast and low across our yard and then up and over our fence to attack some pigeons perched on the other side.

Nesting

Cooper’s Hawks build nests in tall trees, using sticks and twigs to create a platform. They may also use the nests of other birds, such as crows or squirrels.

They typically lay 3-5 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Cooper’s Hawks are one of the few bird species capable of eating other birds their own size.
  • These birds are sometimes called “chicken hawks” due to their habit of preying on domestic chickens.
  • Cooper’s Hawks are skilled fliers, capable of maneuvering through dense forests at high speeds.
  • They were once hunted for their feathers, which were used in fashion accessories such as hats.

5. Northern Harrier

The Northern Harrier is a medium-sized raptor that people can see throughout north and central America and is a resident of North Carolina during the colder non-breeding months.

They are also commonly known as Marsh Hawks for their specific hunting behavior.

  • Length: 46-50cm (18.1-19.8 inches)
  • Weight: 300-750g (10.5-26.5oz)
  • Wingspan: 102-118cm (40-46.5 inches)
  • Northern Harrier Scientific Name: Circus cyaneus

Appearance

Northern Harriers are medium-sized birds with a wingspan of up to 4 feet. They have long, broad wings and a long, rounded tail. They have tiny, hooked beaks, and their face is “owl-like.”

Males have a gray back, gray wings with black wingtips, black horizontal bands on their tales, and white underparts.

Females are brown on their back and wings, with a white underside streaked with brown. Juveniles appear similar to adult females.

Males and females also have a distinctive white rump patch visible when flying.

Habitat

You can spot a Northern Harrier in various open habitats, such as marshes, grasslands, and agricultural fields

Diet

Northern Harriers are predatory birds that feed on various marsh-living prey, including small mammals, birds, and reptiles. They may even feed on ducks and rabbits if given a chance. 

They hunt by flying low over the ground, using their keen eyesight and hearing to locate prey. 

They are also known for their ability to hover in place while scanning for prey.

Nesting

Northern Harriers build their nests on the ground, typically in dense marsh vegetation such as reeds and tall grass. They may use sticks, grasses, and other plant materials to create a platform. 

They typically lay 4-5 eggs, which hatch after about a month. The female takes primary responsibility for incubating the eggs and caring for the young.

Interesting facts

  • Northern Harriers are among the few bird species exhibiting sexual dimorphism in which Males are smaller than females.
  • They can also be polygynous, with a single male mating with two or more females in a breeding season.
  • These birds are known for their distinctive hunting behavior, which involves flying low over the ground and using their hearing to locate prey.
  • These birds have been known to mob potential predators, such as eagles or owls, to protect their nests and young

6. Sharp-shinned Hawk

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a small bird of prey that people can see throughout much of North America. They can be seen in the eastern half of North Carolina during the fall and winter and in the western half of the state all year round.

They are known for their agility and speed in flight and are skilled hunters of small birds and mammals.

  • Length: 24-34cm (9.4-13.5 inches)
  • Weight: 87-218g (3.1-7.7oz)
  • Wingspan: 87-218cm (17-22 inches)
  • Sharp-shinned Hawk Scientific Name: Accipiter striatus

Appearance

Sharp-shinned Hawks are small hawks with a wingspan of up to 2 feet. They have long, squared-off narrow tails and short rounded wings. 

Females are larger than males and look similar to Cooper’s Hawks but considerably smaller, just a bit larger than a Blue Jay.

They are bluish-gray above, with a dark barred tail and a rusty-colored chest and belly. 

Habitat

You can spot a Sharp-shinned Hawk in various wooded habitats, from mature forests to suburban parks and backyards. They live in areas throughout North America, from Alaska to Central America.

Diet

Sharp-shinned Hawks are predatory birds that feed primarily on small songbirds but will also eat small rodents, lizards, and large insects.

They are skilled hunters, using their agility and speed in flight to pursue and catch their prey. You can see them hunting in North Carolina backyards that attract songbirds to bird feeders.

Nesting

Sharp-shinned Hawks build concealed nests in trees, using sticks and twigs to create a platform. They typically lay 4-5 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Females mostly incubate the eggs and feed the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Sharp-shinned Hawks are known for their speed and flight agility, allowing them to catch small birds and mammals easily.
  • These birds are sometimes referred to as “sharpies” by bird enthusiasts.
  • The Sharp-shinned Hawk is one of the few bird species that exhibit sexual size dimorphism, with females being larger than males.
  • These birds are sometimes preyed upon by larger birds of prey, such as Cooper’s Hawks or American Goshawks.

7. Broad-winged Hawk

The Broad-winged Hawk is a small bird of prey that people can see throughout much of North America and is a resident of North Carolina during the spring and summer breeding months.

They are known for their distinctive migration behavior, forming large groups and traveling long distances together.

  • Length: 34-44cm (13.4-17.5 inches)
  • Weight: 265-560g (9.2-19.8oz)
  • Wingspan: 81-100cm (32-39.5 inches)
  • Broad-winged Hawk Scientific Name: Buteo platypterus

Appearance

Broad-winged Hawks are small raptors with a wingspan of up to 3 feet. They have large heads, short square tails, and broad wings.

They have a brown back and wings, with a white barred tail and a rusty-colored barred chest and belly. They also have a distinctive pale eyebrow stripe above their eye.

They sometimes are seen in a dark morph coloration. Dark morph Broad-winged hawks are dark all over with dark wing coverts and silvery flight feathers. Dark morphs also have a white band on a dark tail.

Habitat

You can spot a Broad-winged Hawk in various wooded habitats, from mature forests to suburban parks. They are located throughout eastern North America during the breeding season and in Central America and northern parts of South America during the non-breeding season.

Diet

Broad-winged Hawks are perch hunters that feed on various prey, including small mammals, birds, frogs, and reptiles such as snakes and lizards. They hunt during the day, using their keen eyesight and agility to pursue prey through the trees.

Nesting

They build nests in trees, using sticks and twigs to create a platform. They typically lay 2-3 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Females primarily incubate the eggs and feed the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Broad-winged Hawks are known for their distinctive migration behavior, forming large groups called “kettles” and traveling long distances together. They are a common sight during their migration in the fall.
  • These birds are sometimes called “whistling hawks” due to their high-pitched call.
  • They are one of the few bird species that are monogamous and mate for life.
  • These birds are sometimes preyed upon by larger birds of prey, such as eagles or owls.

8. Rough-legged Hawk

The Rough-legged Hawk is a large raptor that can be found in the northern parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. They are the least commonly observed species in North Carolina but their winter range can extend into the state.

They are known for their distinctive feathered legs, which help them stay warm in their cold northern habitats.

  • Length: 47-52cm (18.5-20.5 inches)
  • Weight: 715-1400g (25.1-49.5oz)
  • Wingspan: 132-138cm (52-54 inches)
  • Rough-legged Hawk Scientific Name: Buteo lagopus

Appearance

Rough-legged Hawks are large hawks with a wingspan of up to 5 feet. They have relatively long, broad wings and long tails. Their legs are covered in feathers, which helps them stay warm in their cold northern habitats. 

They are dark brown above, with a lighter chest and belly. They also have a white tail with a black band near the end. Females have paler heads and dark bellies.

Light morphs have white or pale underwings with dark areas at the end of their shoulders. Dark morphs are primarily dark brown, with silvery white flight feathers and dark wingtips.

Habitat

You can spot a Rough-legged Hawk in various open habitats, including deserts, tundra, prairies, fields, and grasslands. They breed in northern Canada and spend their winters in the lower 48 states of the US.

Diet

Rough-legged Hawks are predatory birds that feed primarily on rodents such as voles and mice but will also eat other small mammals, birds, and insects. They hunt by hovering over fields, using their keen eyesight to scan for prey from high in the sky.

Nesting

Rough-legged Hawks primarily build nests on cliffs or sometimes even on the ground, using sticks and twigs to create a platform. They typically lay 3-5 eggs, which hatch after about a month. Females incubate the eggs and feed the chicks.

Interesting facts

  • Rough-legged Hawks are one of the few bird species that change the color of their feathers with the seasons. During the summer, their feathers are brown, but in the winter, they become primarily white.
  • These birds are sometimes called “Arctic hawks” due to their northern habitat.
  • Rough-legged Hawks are known for their distinctive hovering flight, which allows them to stay in one place while scanning for movement below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What type of hawks live in North Carolina?

The most commonly seen hawks in North Carolina are Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawk, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, and Rough-legged Hawks.

Are there Cooper’s Hawks in North Carolina?

Cooper’s Hawks can be found in North Carolina year-round. They are seen throughout many parts of the state and are more commonly seen hunting in residential backyards.

Are there red-shouldered hawks in North Carolina?

Yes, Red-shouldered Hawks are found in North Carolina all year round. They can be seen throughout the state in wooded areas and along rivers and streams.

Keep An Eye Out For Hawks In North Carolina

North Carolina has a rich diversity of hawks that grace its skies throughout the year. From the monogamous Broad-winged Hawks, known for their distinctive migration behavior, to the Rough-legged Hawks, distinguished by their feather-clad legs and seasonal color change, each species uniquely charm the state’s natural landscape.

Whether you’re a birdwatcher, a nature enthusiast, or a resident of North Carolina, these magnificent birds of prey remind us of the diverse wildlife surrounding us, urging us to respect and protect our habitats.

We hope this article has provided all the information you need. If you have questions about identifying more species of birds in North Carolina or finding out which ones live near you, let us know!

We would love to help identify new bird species for our readers.

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I am an avid birdwatcher with a passion for learning all I can about these fantastic creatures. I love finding new species of birds in my backyard, neighborhood, or when I travel. I enjoy sharing everything I learn about how these creatures live their lives; feedback and experience is much appreciated!

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