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7 Types of Hawks You Can Find in Alabama (Pictures)

 Updated by Melanie Cruff on 02-23-2024

With the Appalachian Mountains to the north, the Gulf Coast towards the south, and lots of woodlands, wetlands, and wildlife refuges in between, birders never have a hard time finding an interesting species to observe in Alabama. There are hundreds of varieties of birds that call this state their home, including waterfowl, songbirds, woodpeckers, and of course — birds of prey. Today we’re going to focus on a popular bird of prey, the hawk, and cover the 7 species of hawks regularly found in Alabama.

Not including very rare or vagrant species, the 7 species of hawks in Alabama are the Red-Shouldered Hawk, Red-Tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-Shinned Hawk, Northern Harrier, Broad-Winged Hawk, and the Rough-Legged Hawk.

There are two main types of hawks found in Alabama; buteos and accipiters. However, there’s another type of hawk that lives here too, the Northern Harrier, which is the only type of harrier found in North America. We refer to both accipiters and buteos as ‘hawks’ in alignment with North American terminology. This usage reflects regional naming conventions and is not intended to overlook the taxonomic distinctions among these groups of birds of prey.

Keep on reading to learn about all 7 hawk species and the best ways to find them.

1. Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk – Image: pixabay

Scientific name: Buteo lineatus
Length: 16.9-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Wingspan: 37.0-43.7

Red-shouldered Hawks are fairly common in their range, and are found year-round across Alabama. They tend to occupy both deciduous and mixed forests near bodies of water like rivers and swamps. You may hear this hawk before you spot it. They give a loud “kee-aah” call that is usually repeated several times in a row. They will loudly call to mark territory or when alarmed. 

Their backs are a mix of mottled dark and white “checkered” pattern, with rusty red at the top of the back and wings (the “shoulders”). Their chest is rusty, which extends down to rusty stripes on white for the rest of their underparts. Red-shouldered Hawks are medium-sized with a standard buteo shape — sturdy bodies with broad, rounded wings.

red shouldered hawk
red shouldered hawk | credit: ALAN SCHMIERER

To find these hawks, head to forest habitat and woodland swamps. They are also fairly common in suburban areas if there are enough mature trees around. They hunt small mammals, snakes, lizards and amphibians. Red-shouldered hawks will sometimes snag birds from backyard feeders, but not as readily as Cooper’s or Sharpies. 

2. Red-Tailed Hawk

red tailed hawk perched on tree
Image: Mark Bohn, USFWS |

Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Length:17.7-25.6 in
Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in

Red-tailed Hawks are the most widespread hawk in America and are found year-round in Alabama. They’re so frequent that you’ve probably seen them before, perched along the edges of tree-lined roads or soaring above. These hawks favor open country and fields that also offer high places to perch. It’s here they scan the ground for prey including, mice, rabbits and even snakes. Once they have something in their sights, they dive with their legs out, talons ready to seize. If the prey is small it’s brought back to the perch and eaten, but larger meals are often consumed right on the ground.

The Red-tailed Hawk has a remarkable variation in plumage across its range, which spans much of North America. This variability is not just across different geographic areas but can also occur within local populations. The typical adult Red-tailed Hawk is characterized by its rich brown back and pale underside, with a streaked belly and a distinctive reddish tail that gives the species its name.

red tailed hawk juvenile
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

However, color morphs range from dark to light, including the dark “chocolate” morph, the rufous “western” morph, and the nearly all-white “Krider’s” morph. Juveniles also differ in appearance from adults and lack the red tail, usually displaying a brown and white banded tail instead. These diverse plumage patterns help Red-tailed Hawks blend into their respective environments, from desert landscapes to forested regions, providing camouflage that is advantageous for hunting and survival.

3. Cooper’s Hawk

Coopers hawk adult perching
Adult Coopers Hawk

Scientific name: Accipiter cooperii
Length: 14.6-17.7 in
Weight: 7.8-24.0 oz
Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in

Cooper’s Hawks are year-round hawks in Alabama. They’re woodland dwellers and are often found in mature forests. To hunt they wait and listen for prey, using stealth to gain the upper hand before taking off. These hawks are expert flyers and use their aerial skills to quickly maneuver through trees and branches to chase after prey. Their preference for song-birds frequently brings them to backyards, where they will wait and watch feeders to hunt.

The adult Cooper’s hawk is a medium-sized bird of prey with a slate-gray back, dark cap, and reddish bars on the breast. It has a long tail with dark bands and amber eyes. The juvenile Cooper’s hawk has a brown back, and brown streaks on the breast. 

coopers hawk juvenile pole
Cooper’s Hawk (juvenile) | image by Robert Nunnally via Flickr

Cooper’s hawk look a lot like the next hawk on the list, the Sharp-shinned Hawk, but they are larger and have a more squared head and rounded tail tip.

4. Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Image: dbadry |

Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in

Telling Sharp-shinned Hawks apart from Cooper’s Hawks is a challenging feat even for the most experienced birdwatchers — both accipiters feature similar blue-gray coloration with reddish streaking on their underparts. Like Cooper’s Hawks, Sharped-shinned Hawks also have short, rounded wings, lanky legs, and long tails. However, Sharp-shinned hawks, or sharpies, are smaller, being the smallest accipiter in North America. They’re also less-common than Cooper’s Hawks in Alabama, only non-breeding populations are found here during the winter.

Being accipiters, sharpies mostly prey upon songbirds like sparrows and robins and will occasionally visit backyard feeders, though not as often as Cooper’s Hawks. These hawks are more secretive in nature and tend to stay out of sight. The best time to see them is during their fall migration, where they travel in large numbers and are more easily observed.

sharp shinned hawk perched snowy day
sharp-shinned hawk

5. Northern Harrier

northern harrier dive
Northern Harrier | image by Tom Koerner/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via Flickr

Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
Length: 18.1-19.7 in
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz 
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in

Northern Harriers are the only type of harrier found in North America. They’re unique hawks with broad wings, long, rounded tails, and faces that look more similar to an owl’s than a typical hawk’s. Like owls, they have sensitive hearing that helps them locate and capture mice and voles hiding undercover. Males and females have different colorations. Males are gray above with white underparts while females are brown — though both sexes have black-banded tails that feature a bright white patch towards their rear that’s visible during flight.

Non-breeding Northern Harrier populations are found in Alabama during the winter, most commonly in open areas such as grasslands, marshes, fields, and prairies. They tend to fly low to the ground with their wings in a v-shaped position. During fall and spring migration, they’re often spotted higher up traveling above mountain ranges and coastal borders.

northern harrier female
Northern Harrier in flight

6. Broad-Winged Hawk

Broad-winged hawk (Image: Andrew Cannizzaro | CC BY 2.0 | wikicommons)

Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
Length: 13.4-17.3 in
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz 
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in

Broad-winged Hawks are the smallest buteos in North America. They have reddish-brown plumage on their heads and upper-parts and pale underparts with barring. Their tails have bold black and white bands. These hawks are found in Alabama during the breeding season where pairs will often fly high above, calling. During these displays, one of the hawks flies higher before diving straight down towards the earth.

Otherwise, pairs will stay tucked inside mixed forests of coniferous and deciduous trees, staying pretty much out of sight. They will nest in forests and along bodies of water far from humans. They eat small mammals, insects, and amphibians such as frogs and toads.

broad winged hawk flight
Broad-winged Hawk | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

The best time to see them is during their famous fall migration to Central America, where thousands of hawks come together to form large flocks known kettles. These kettles are a dazzling spectacle of swirling birds and they attract bird watchers from all over to gaze at them from mountain ridges and coastlines.

7. Rough-Legged Hawk

Rough-legged hawk (Image: Tom Koerner/USFWS | CC BY 2.0 | flickr)

Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
Length: 18.5-20.5 in
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz 
Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in 

Though rarely seen in Alabama, Rough-legged Hawks are sometimes spotted during the winter in open fields and prairies, especially in the north. The best time to see Rough-legged Hawks anywhere in the United States is during the winter, since they migrate far north to the arctic regions of Alaska and northern Canada each year to breed. 

Rough-legged Hawks earned their name from the feathers that run all the way down to their feet. Look for them perched along the edge of open fields where they like to hunt for small mammals and birds. Rough-legged hawks come in two color morphs, dark and light. The plumage of males and females look quite different in both morphs. Light morphs are overall lighter colored with a somewhat mottled pattern, and dark morphs are a dark chocolate brown color with two-toned light/dark under their wings and tails.

two rough legged hawks
Two color-morphs of the Rough Legged Hawk | image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

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