Hawks are widely distributed birds of prey found throughout the United States and North America. They’re medium-sized to large raptors that can generally be put into two categories — accipiters and buteos. This article is going to take a look at the hawks found specifically in the state of Kentucky. We’ll give you some pictures to help you ID them and discuss some interesting facts about each one of them.
The hawks of Kentucky include the red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, American goshawk, rough-legged hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, red-shouldered hawk, and the northern harrier.
For information about them all, such as the best times to look for each kind, keep reading below!
Please note that 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. In Europe, buteos are referred to as buzzards.
1. Red-Tailed Hawk
Red-tailed Hawks are some of the most common hawks in North America. They’re year-round hawks in Kentucky as well as the majority of the country. Chances are you’ve seen one before — they often perch on tall vantage points like roadside telephone poles.
They feature white, creamy undersides with light, reddish brown markings. Even though they’re large hawks, they don’t weigh much. The average weight is around 2 and a half pounds for an adult.
When in flight you can observe their defined, buteo hawk silhouette; broad, rounded wings and short tail. They often circle high above open pastures and fields, scanning the ground for small mammals to eat.
Listen for their iconic raptor screech — you’ll surely recognize it as the same call used for hawks, and other birds of prey, in most movies and television shows.
- Learn more interesting facts about Red-tailed hawks
2. 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
Broad-winged hawks can only be found during breeding season in Kentucky from April to August. These hawks are on the smaller side with stocky bodies and large, reddish heads. They have similar barring as the red-shouldered hawk, but with brown coloration rather than red.
You may be able to find one by listening for its piercing, single-pitched whistle it makes when hunting. However, if you’re lucky you’ll catch their fall migration, when large flocks, or kettles, of thousands of Broad-wing hawks travel to South America. They often cruise along mountain ridges and coastlines.
3. American Goshawk
Scientific name: Accipiter atricapillus
Length: 20.9-25.2 in
Weight: 22.3-48.1 oz
Wingspan: 40.5-46 in.
American goshawks are closely related to sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks — except larger and more aggressive. Their coloration is mostly gray with white stripes above their red-orange eyes.
American goshawks are more secretive than a lot of other hawks, making them hard to locate. Only non-breeding populations are found in Kentucky, and scarcely at that.
The best chance of seeing them is to head for the woods, as they like to hide out in large, dense sections of forest. Be careful to keep a safe distance though, since these defensive hawks are known for attacking people that get too close to their nests.
4. 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
You’ll only be able to catch the non-breeding population of Rough-legged hawks in the northern half of Kentucky. During the summer they reside in the arctic tundra, hunting and raising their young. In the winter, they migrate south to escape the cold.
They often fly up and face the wind while hunting, hovering and searching for prey like small rodents. In the summer they feast upon lemmings in the arctic tundra.
They share the buteo shape along with the Red-tailed hawk, but with longer, more narrow wings. Rough-legged hawks typically feature dark-brown and white colorations, though they also occur in light and dark morphs. Their fully feathered legs are what earned them the name “rough-legged.”
5. Sharp-shinned Hawk
Sharp-shinned hawks are found year-round in the majority of Kentucky, with a small portion in the west being the exception. The best time to catch a glimpse of them is during the fall when they migrate — they can often be the largest groups of raptors around during this time.
Though these hawks may be small, they sure are fast. Their long legs, short, round wings, and lengthy tails allow them to fly through dense forests at rapid speeds.
Watch out if you keep bird feeders in the yard, these guys are well-known for snatching up unsuspecting songbirds. If you notice them perched in your yard, remove your bird feeder and replace it after a few weeks. The hawks will search for food elsewhere and the songbirds will eventually return.
6. Cooper’s Hawk
Cooper’s hawks are very similar in appearance to sharp-shinned hawks, making it difficult to differentiate between the two. Both birds even share the same flap-flap-glide flying style. However, Cooper’s hawks are larger with slightly broader wings.
They’re found year-round in Kentucky, most often on the edge of forests, but sometimes in backyards, too. Though they used to avoid populated areas, these hawks are becoming more and more common in towns, suburbs, and other urban areas — preying on the many pigeons and doves that live there.
They’re about the size of a crow and have an accipiter shape with broad, rounded wings and a long tail. Cooper’s hawks are incredible flyers, able to quickly navigate dense forests to chase after smaller birds.
7. Red-shouldered Hawk
The Red-shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) is a year-round resident of Kentucky, favoring the state’s wet forests near streams and creeks. Recognizable by their reddish barring on the underparts and distinctive white banding on the tail, these medium-sized raptors are often seen circling above their nesting areas in spring.
Their unique translucent crescents near the wingtips make them easily identifiable. While Red-shouldered Hawks frequently engage in skirmishes with crows over food, they can also collaborate against common predators, showcasing their complex behavior.
These hawks play a vital role in their ecosystems, controlling populations of small animals and contributing to the ecological balance. Their presence in Kentucky enriches the local biodiversity, making them a cherished species among birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.
8. 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 has an elegant face that resembles that of an owl. This disc-shaped face functions similarly to an owls, directing sound into their ears to help them hunt by sound as well as sight.
Two helpful identifying features are their long tail, and white patch above the tail. They have a signature flying style, holding their wings in the shape of a “V”. Majestic is an excellent word to describe these birds.
Harriers are present during the winter/non-breeding times throughout Kentucky, before they migrate north into Canada to breed each year in the spring. You’re likely to see them over marshes, fields, and other wide-open areas.
Unlike many hawks that nest in trees, this hawk builds a platform on the ground in dense vegetation like reeds, willows, sedges and cattails. Males can have two (sometimes more) mates at once, and they will provide food for the female and offspring.
Other articles you might enjoy:
- Owls in Kentucky
- Falcons in Kentucky
- Woodpeckers in Kentucky
- Hummingbirds in Kentucky
- Backyard birds in Kentucky
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.