Colorado is home to a diverse array of hawk species, each adapted to thrive in the varied habitats that characterize the state. From the expansive grasslands of the eastern plains to the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, Colorado offers a rich tapestry of environments that support a wide range of hawk species.
In the eastern plains, hawks can be found soaring over vast prairies, while in the mountainous regions, they navigate through forests, cliffs, and alpine meadows. Additionally, Colorado’s riparian areas and wetlands provide essential habitats for hawks, adding to the state’s appeal for these magnificent birds of prey.
There are 9 species of hawks you might come across in Colorado; the Red-tailed Hawk, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Broad-winged Hawk, American Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, and the Ferruginous Hawk.
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.
Read on to learn more about what each species looks like and when they can be seen in the state.
1. Red-tailed Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo jamaicensis
Weight: 24.3-51.5 oz
Wingspan: 44.9-52.4 in
The Red-tailed Hawk is a large hawk and the most common one in all of North America. They have a year-round range in the entire state of Colorado and can commonly be seen soaring overhead or perched high up on telephone wires and high in trees. They feed mostly on small to medium-sized mammals so they aren’t seen in backyards stalking bird feeders as often as other species.
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.
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.
Scientific name: Accipiter striatus
Length: 9.4-13.4 in
Weight: 3.1-7.7 oz
Wingspan: 16.9-22.1 in
The Sharp-shinned Hawk has a year-round range in most of the state, although they are more rare in the northeast corner. Sharp-shinned Hawks (nicknamed “Sharpies”) are notorious for stalking backyard bird feeders, since songbirds make up about 90% of their diet. They are the smallest hawks in Colorado and in North America. If you see one in your yard be sure to take down your feeders for a few days and allow the hawk to move on before putting them back up.
They are small to medium sized raptors that look very similar to the Cooper’s Hawk, but smaller. Adults have a dark head, nape and back, with a banded tail. Their lower face and breast is white with heavy orange barring. Note their small, rounded head, large red eye and long tail. Juveniles have a brown back with brown streaking down the chest.
3. Cooper’s 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 can be found all year long throughout the state of Colorado. Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks look extremely similar, with a dark cap, nape and back and orange barred front. Cooper’s are larger and the end of their tail tends to look rounder than the squared-off Sharpie. The juvenile Cooper’s hawk has a brown back, and brown streaks on the breast.
Like the Sharpie, the Cooper’s Hawk loves to prey on other birds and can also be a nuisance in backyards. Doves are a large portion of their diet. These hawks catch birds with their feet and kill them by squeezing rather than biting. Cooper’s Hawks are generally forest birds but they are moving more and more into urban and suburban areas which is why they can often be seen in cities, parks, and backyards.
4. Broad-winged Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo platypterus
Length: 13.4-17.3 in
Weight: 9.3-19.8 oz
Wingspan: 31.9-39.4 in
Colorado isn’t technically within the normal range of the Broad-winged Hawk, however they have definitely been spotted in the state during migration. May and September are probably the best time for sightings (spring and fall migration), and this tends to happen in the eastern portion of the state.
Broad-winged Hawks leave South America by the hundreds of thousands in the fall to start their migration to their breeding grounds in North America. Once they arrive they are found in the eastern part of the U.S. and throughout much of Canada, but not the western parts of the United States.
The Broad-winged hawk is a small to medium-sized bird of prey with broad, rounded wings and a relatively short, banded tail. It has a dark brown back and wings, with a rufous-barred underbelly. From below, you can see a dark outline around the wings.
5. American Goshawk
Scientific name: Accipiter atricapillus
Length: 20.9-25.2 in
Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46.1 in
American Goshawks range includes all of Colorado. They have a year-round range in the western two-thirds of the state, while the eastern third of Colorado tends to only see them during the non-breeding months. Until recently these birds where known as the The Northern Goshawk, but in 2023 the population was split into the American Goshawk for those in North American and the Eurasian Goshawk for those found in the eastern hemisphere.
This raptor got its name from the Old English word for “goose hawk,” which refers to the fact that it preys on other birds. Larger birds like ducks, grouse, woodpeckers, jays and crows are all on the menu. However they also eat mammals including squirrels, hares, jackrabbits and cottontails.
They can be identified by their mostly gray color. Their back is a dark gray while their underparts are white with delicate gray barring. They have a dark cap, white ‘eyebrow’ stripe and amber colored eyes. Juveniles look quite different, with a mottled brown back and underparts covered in thick brown streaks.
6. Rough-legged Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo lagopus
Length: 18.5-20.5 in
Weight: 25.2-49.4 oz
Wingspan: 52.0-54.3 in
The Rough-legged Hawk can be seen across Colorado, but only during the non-breeding season. 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. They can easily be identified by their feathered legs that go all the way down to their toes. The only other species of hawk with this trait is the Ferruginous Hawk, who is further down on this list.
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.
7. Swainson’s Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo swainsoni
Length: 18.9-22.1 in
Weight: 24.4-48.2 oz
Wingspan: 48 in
Swainson’s Hawks return to Colorado each year in the spring and summer to breed. Look for them perched on utility poles along the road, scanning the ground for prey. They may also be seen traveling in large flocks in the tens of thousands called “kettles” in April and September as they are flying to and from the United States during their migration. They have one of the longest migration routes of any American raptor with some traveling from Southern South America all the way to Alaska to breed.
Even though much of prairie and grassland habitat they historically have hunted on has been turned into agricultural fields, they have adapted. You may see them perching on fence posts or irrigation sprinklers while hunting the fields for mice, voles, rabbits and squirrels. They also eat lizards, snakes and even bats.
Swainson’s Harks are large birds with long wings that appear pointed at the end. They have dark flight feathers that give their wings a dark edge when viewed from below. Their head and upper breast are brown, which their belly and throat are white, giving them a hooded appearance.
8. Ferruginous Hawk
Scientific name: Buteo regalis
Length: 22.1-27.2 in
Weight: 34.5-73.2 oz
Wingspan: 52.4-55.9 in
The Ferruginous Hawk is found year-round throughout much of Colorado, although many may tend to move out from the center of the state in the summer. Along with the Rough-legged Hawk they are the only other species to have feathers all the way down to their toes. They are the largest of all North American hawks, even larger than the Red-tailed Hawk.
The term “ferruginous” means rust-colored. So these hawks got their name from the rusty feathers found on their back and legs. They have a white belly with bluish-gray on their head and wings. There is also a less common dark-morph that has a dark body and dark inner wings.
These impressive hawks prefer a diet of rabbits, ground squirrels, gophers and prairie dogs. They use several methods for hunting, including searching from a perch or when soaring, and even running on the ground after their prey.
9. Northern Harrier
Scientific name: Circus hudsonius
Length: 18.1-19.7 in
Weight: 10.6-26.5 oz
Wingspan: 40.2-46.5 in
The Northern Harrier is the only harrier variety of hawks indigenous to North America. Its breeding grounds range as far north as Canada, but it winters in more southern climates. The Northern Harrier can be found throughout Colorado year-round. Look for them flying over grassland, marsh, fields and other open lands. They have a slow flight-style, and often hold their wings in a V-shaped posture.
These medium-sized raptors have long, broad wings and a face that resembles an owl. Males and females of this species have slightly different plumage. Males have a dark grayish-brown back, pale underside and in flight you’ll see a dark edge around their wings. Females are more brown on the back, and their light underside has brown streaking. One thing to look for in both males and females is a white patch on the rump right at the top of the tail.
While they may look at bit like an owl, they aren’t related to them. However, like owls the Northern Harrier relies on hearing as well as their vision to hunt. Their owl-like face helps funnel sound to their ears. Males can have up to five female partners at once, although it’s more common for them to have just one or two.
You may also be interested in:
- Woodpeckers in Colorado
- Backyard Birds In Colorado
- Falcons in Colorado
- Owls in Colorado
- Hummingbirds in Colorado
Jesse has been feeding birds in his backyard and bird watching across the country for years. He loves learning about the different species and sharing his knowledge and experiences on this website.