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 in Alabama.
Species of Hawks in Alabama
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. Though not all of the species we’re going to talk about live here year-round, they all spend at least some portion of the year here consistently. Keep on reading to learn about all 7 hawk species and the best ways to find them.
1. Red-Shouldered Hawk
Length: 16.9-24.0 in
Weight: 17.1-27.3 oz
Wingspan: 37.0-43.7 in
Though Red-shouldered Hawk populations have faced an overall decline, they’re still found year-round in Alabama. They tend to occupy both deciduous and mixed forests near bodies of water like rivers and swamps. During the spring their two parted, whistle-like calls are frequently heard. If you hear this distinctive “kee-ahh” call, be sure to look for them up high, often circling above their nesting grounds.
Red-shouldered Hawks are easily identifiable. They’re medium-sized hawks with a standard buteo shape — sturdy bodies with broad, rounded wings. When they’re in the air their wings tend to stretch forward and their tails fan out, they also have translucent crescents near their wingtips that help distinguish them from other hawks. As their name implies, Red-shouldered Hawks feature beautiful rusty-red plumage on their upper backs and chests as well as dark brown and white checkered wings.
2. Red-Tailed Hawk
Length: 17.7-25.6 in
Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in
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Like Red-shouldered Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks are also buteos. However, Red-tailed Hawks are much larger — the second-largest buteo hawk in America. Their streaked undersides are brightly pale, compared to the red bellies of Red-shouldered hawks, and their upper-parts are a deep brown. The feathers on the upper-sides of their tails are a warm, brick red.
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 reptiles. 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.
3. Cooper’s Hawk
Length: 14.6-17.7 in
Weight: 7.8-24.0 oz
Wingspan: 24.4-35.4 in
Cooper’s Hawks are accipiter hawks — they mostly eat smaller birds and have shorter wings and longer tails than buteo hawks. Juveniles have brown coloration above and reddish-brown streaking on their pale chests and bellies, but the color on their upper-parts turns to a bluish-gray once they mature. Their eyes are set close to their beaks and are a striking orange-red.
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 take advantage of feeding jays and robins.
4. Sharp-Shinned Hawk
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.
5. Northern Harrier
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.
6. Broad-Winged Hawk
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.
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
Length: 18.5-20.5 in
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
Though very rarely seen in Alabama, Rough-legged Hawks are sometimes spotted during the winter in open fields and prairies. However, most of the year they are found much higher north, nesting in the arctic in the spring and summer. They’re another type of buteo hawk, but with longer wings and tails than most other kinds.
Rough-legged Hawks earned their name from the feathers that run all the way down to their talons and help them keep warm in cold climates. The only other American hawks that feature these feathered legs are Ferruginous Hawks. These large hawks are usually seen hovering in the wind or perched on branches or tall posts, looking for their main prey — small rodents.