Hawks




Hawks are medium-sized birds of prey that are widely distributed throughout the globe. Hawks have sharp bills, large talons, strong legs, and very keen eyesight, including photo receptors that pick up ultra violet light and magnetic fields.

Hawks are believed to be some of the more intelligent species of bird. Like most birds, many hawks migrate in the fall and spring. Some hawks, such as the Swainson’s hawk, migrate great distances—about 12,000 miles round trip. Some migrate in large flocks of 1,000 or more birds, like the Broad Wing hawk.

White hawk

Credit: frederick.forestryboard.org - David Barrow

In the hawk family, the female tends to be significantly larger than the male. There are two main groupings of hawks— the Accipiter and Buteo, based upon the bird’s general appearance and how it flies and hunts for prey. Accipiters tend to have short wings and long tails. They fly low to the ground, and flap their wings a lot. They tend to inhabit forested areas, and they will sit on a perch waiting for unsuspecting prey swooping down for the kill. The accipiter tends to feed on other birds. Examples of accepters include the Cooper’s hawk, Sharp shinned Hawk, Sparrow Hawk, and Goshawk. Buteo hawks tend to glide about at higher elevations, and swoop down to catch their prey. Buteo hawks have large broad wings, short tails, and very keen eyesight. They tend to be larger in size than accipiter’s. A listing of Buteo hawks includes Red Tail Hawk, Broad Winged Hawk, Red Shouldered Hawks, and Short Tail Hawk.

Hawks tend to nest in trees; some hawks, like the goshawk, will vigorously defend their nest against intruders. Most species of hawks are very territorial unless they are in migration mode.

Broad-Winged Hawk

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Credit: Jan Barrow, Myersville, MD

The broad-winged hawk is a fairly small hawk with a stout body and a big head. This hawk is part of the Buteo family of hawks. With fairly large wings and a short, square tail, it is reddish brown on its upper body, and a white underside with brown it gray bars. The underside of the tail has distinct black and white stripes.

The broad-winged hawk can be seen soaring overhead, but it spends most of its time in and around deciduous or mixed evergreen hardwood forests, perching in lower branches waiting to ambush unwary quarry. This hawk targets squirrels, chipmunks, small rodents, birds, reptiles, and frogs. Broad-winged Hawks spend most of the summer in North America, but most will migrate great distances to winter to Central and South America. They sometimes congregate in large flocks of as many as 1,000 birds when they migrate south in the fall. A favorite route is along the Appalachian Mountains. This large exodus of hawks gave rise to the popularity of hawk migrations. Broad-winged hawks have a very shrill whistle as a call and tend to shy away from densely populated areas.

Cooper’s hawk

Credit: flickr.org - Tom Koerner/USFWS

The Cooper’s hawk is a medium-sized hawk that has a fairly wide distribution across the United States and Mexico, and is quite common in Maryland. The Cooper’s Hawk is an Accipiter, meaning that it tends to perch in trees and utility lines, and swoop down to catch its prey. The bird was named after William Cooper who was a famous Naturalist in the 1800’s. Cooper’s hawks are very quick and agile, with strong legs and large talons, traits that serve them well when hunting for birds and small mammals.

Cooper’s Hawks target game birds like pheasant, quail, and grouse, along with other small and medium-sized birds. It was the bird’s propensity to target game birds that led to large scale bounties being placed on the hawk in the 1800’s early 1900’s that drastically reduced their numbers. The populations rebounded quickly after protective measures were put on this bird and other raptors, so today its population is fairly robust. While the Cooper’s Hawk feeds on some birds that are declining such as prairie chicken, cerulean warbler, and golden winged warbler, the declines that these birds are witnessing is due more to loss of suitable habitat rather than predation. One reason for the smaller sparrow hawk’s population decline is due to competition by the Cooper’s hawk. The Cooper’s hawk is agile, fast, and adaptable, traits that serve this bird well in the natural world.

Northern Goshawk

Credit: wikimedia.org - Dr. Norbert Kenntner

The northern goshawk is known for its aggressive appearance and surly overall demeanor, especially when defending its nest or home range. The goshawk is part of the accipiter family of hawks— it tends to fly close to the ground. This large hawk is mostly grey-brown with broad wings and a long tail. The fact that the adult has a prominent white stripe around its red eyes only lends to its notoriety.

The goshawk is mostly solitary or it pairs up during mating season. This hawk is normally found in extensive woodland, either coniferous or deciduous, depending on the geographic location. The goshawk is the only member of the hawk family that is found in North America and throughout the northern sections of Europe and Asia, as well, exhibiting the largest range of any raptor, eclipsed only by the Golden Eagle. The goshawk is found primarily in the western part of this country, but are occasionally found throughout the east, as well, including some resident goshawks found in the mountainous sections of Maryland.

Goshawks hunt from a perch, swooping down on their unsuspecting prey. The bird does not need to flap its large wings very much to build up a lot of speed; it is very agile, making its way through a thick forest. Goshawks have been known to crash through brush and small branches to capture their prey. They feed on larger birds such as woodpeckers, grouse, and doves, rabbits, hares, waterfowl, and squirrels. Not many animals hunt this bird, the exception being snowy and great horned owls. Most goshawks do not migrate very far, but there are reports of northern birds traveling south in search of food.

The name came from “goose hawk,” because this raptor targets larger birds like geese. The goshawk’s patience and quiet flight enable it to be a very successful hunter. The bird has been revered throughout the ages; Atillia the Hun was impressed enough to have the goshawk image on his helmet.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Credit: dnr.maryland.gov - Dave Gigliotti

The red-shouldered hawk is a medium-sized hawk in the Buteo family of hawks. It is a bird of the forests. This raptor prefers large forested areas that are associated with bottomlands, wooded streamside areas, and swamps. The hawk prefers older growth forests with an open understory where spotting prey is easy to do. The red-shouldered hawk is found mostly in the east, but there are isolated populations from Oregon down to Mexico in the west. Only the northernmost populations of the red-shouldered hawk migrate.

Red-shouldered hawks are very noisy, often emitting a shrill whistle. This call is mimicked by blue jays. These hawks hunt from the air or a convenient perch, targeting small mammals like mice and squirrels, snakes, birds, insects, crayfish, and amphibians, and they will occasionally eat carrion during lean times. The red-shouldered was once one of the most common of the hawks, but its numbers dwindled as a result of deforestation, draining of wetlands, DDT, nest raiding by birds, mammals and snakes, and illegal hunting. Recently, their numbers have rebounded, so now they are once again fairly common.

Red Tail Hawk

The red tail hawk is considered to be the most prevalent hawk found in North America. This hawk gets its name from its very conspicuous red tail. The red tail is a member of the Buteo family of hawks. They have broad wings and a relatively short tail, adaptations that it uses while soaring high in the sky searching for food. Like most Buteos, red tails tend to feed on small mammals like rabbits, squirrels, rodents, and snakes, but they are opportunists and will take an occasional bird or fish.

Red tail Hawks are generalists—they can be found in all kinds of settings such as open land, dessert, forests, swampy areas, and suburban settings. These hawks are often spotted on utility lines, scanning the ground for food. They tend to be year-round residents in most areas, except for the far north where the bird will migrate to warmer climates in the fall. A common occurrence of hunting red-tails involves the hawk being mobbed by birds, usually crows. When a solitary red tail is attacked by numerous birds, grievous harm or death for the hawk can occur. Red tails are the most popular bird used in falconry in the United States.

Article by FCFCDB

Page header photo credit: Jan Barrow, Myersville, MD

Nature note for 5/1/2021